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Kings and Legends of Ancient Persia




17 September 2005


By Souren Melikian

International Herald Tribune


London - It was a great idea to devote an exhibition to the first classical age of one of the three oldest cultures in the world, Iran. "Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia," at the British Museum, focuses on the Achaemenid period (557-333 B.C.). It should not be missed, but it is marred by curious flaws.


The Achaemenid Empire came into existence when the first Iranian emperor documented in history, Kurush (later known to the Romans as Cyrus the Great), ascended the throne around 557 B.C. For the first time, all Iranian groups, the Medes in the northwest, the Persians in the center and south, the Sogdians in the northeast and the Scythians, right up to the Sir Darya, which flows through present-day Uzbekistan, were united under one rule.


But the empire soon extended far beyond Iranian territory. Assyria, which had waged war against the Medians, was included in it. So were Armenia, which had recently arisen in ancient Urartu (now mostly in eastern Turkey), Lydia and other territories. By the late sixth century B.C. the entire Middle East was under Achaemenid control, up to the Mediterranean shores.


It would take the world-conquering fury of Alexander to break up the empire in 333 and burn down its jewel, the huge royal palace-shrine called by the Greeks Persepolis, "the Persian City."


The mark left by the empire in Iranian culture remained indelible. The memory of Persepolis continued to resonate through time in the collective Iranian psyche long after its ancient name had been forgotten - it is called today Takht-e Jamshid, "The Throne of Jamshid," after a legendary king.


Iranian poets writing in Islamic times lamented its ruins. Solemn visits were made to the site by kings who left calligraphic inscriptions recording their presence down to the late 19th century.


This was not just the result of curiosity. As Sufi mysticism, long confined to closed circles, spread across Iranian society from the 13th century on, the visits took a mystical turn.


The most extraordinary pilgrimage of all was organized in 1476 when Sultan Khalil and his troops, accompanied by religious leaders, went to Persepolis and spent an entire day gazing at the bas-reliefs. The great Sufi master Jalal ad-Din Davani recounts in a work titled Arz Name ("The Military Review Book") the visions experienced by the sultan, who saw the standing figures coming out of the stone walls and going back into place.


The ruler's son Ali, a child prodigy who was a calligrapher, engraved a poem made up from verses by the 12th-century Sufi poet Nezami. The visit and the poem made a lasting impression in Iran. In 1606, the author of a treatise on calligraphy and painting "The Rose Garden of Art" cited it and reproduced it. The verses can be seen to this day. I photographed and published them in 1971 in an essay on Islamic period pilgrimages to Achaemenid sites in the journal Le Monde Iranien et l'Islam.


The entire Achaemenid age continued to evoke echoes, however imprecise, in the collective memory of Iran in a way that has no equivalent in other cultures. Its precise history became lost, but the names of one ruler, Daraya-vahush (Darius I in Latinized form, 522-486 B.C.), shortened to Dara, and of his father, Vishtaspa (Hystaspes in Latin), changed to Goshtasp, are easily recognized in the "Book of Kings" versified in the 10th century.


In the 15th century, Davani still observed that royal gatherings once took place at Persepolis on new year's day.


Mystery surrounds the destination of the huge palatial structure with walls carved with processions of guards and laymen bringing wine vessels or driving animals. Debate still rages among scholars as to the exact nature of the Achaemenid kings' religious beliefs and the meaning of many symbols, including the mythical creatures that loom large at Persepolis, eludes us. Alexander's troops destroyed the palace in 330 B.C., and anything that might have shed light on it.


Even reduced to rubble and bereft of their meaning, the remains profoundly impressed the Iranians. They continued to perceive the Achaemenid period as a golden age. From its very beginnings, the Sasanian dynasty, which ruled Iran from 224 to 651, made attempts at revivalism. At Naqsh-e Rostam, near Persepolis, the Sasanian rock reliefs are carved under the Achaemenid reliefs. Some of the characters have a closely resembling smile, barely suggested. The lips are closed, the eyes stare as if in ecstasy.


The reasons for this admiration are fairly obvious to anyone strolling through Persepolis. The plaster casts that take up much of the exhibition space fail to convey the grandeur of the setting, the mastery of space and the rhythm of the figures. A few sculptural fragments do not re-create the effect of bas-reliefs as a whole.


The figure of a charioteer who stands holding the reins of the two horses that pull his vehicle is remarkable. But the fragment "obtained at Persepolis by Sir Gore Ouseley" in 1811 would look better if the front part of the two horses, given by him to his son, had not turned up many decades later at auction. The Miho Museum in Japan bought them in 1985. Instead of reuniting the two fragments, the exhibition organizers supplied a plaster cast of the Miho piece, which does not help much.


Another fragment retains the bust of a camel driver ripped off the north staircase of the Apadana. This was purchased by the British Museum in 1894, when the monument was quarried by passing European travelers.


Not a great deal of Achaemenid sculpture in the round survives. A small lapis lazuli head of a king dug up at Persepolis in 1946 is on loan from the National Museum in Tehran. It is one of those rare masterpieces that justify a visit on their own. The smile of certainty that illuminates the face, as serene as it is mysterious, is not easily forgotten.


The foreparts of a lion also carved out of lapis lazuli again gives in miniature size some idea of the greatness of animal sculpture in the round that reached an apex in the sixth century B.C. So do three lions cast in bronze in a larger size to serve as a pedestal.


It would have been desirable to include as an introduction some of the beakers and cups in gold and silver from the 10th and 9th centuries B.C. recovered at Marlik or perhaps some copper vessels worked in repoussé from northern and western Iran in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. All show examples of low-relief animal sculpture that would help to understand the blossoming of the Achaemenid age.


One of the greatest and most original aspects of Achaemenid art is represented by gold, silver or bronze vessels. The exhibition selection is uneven and disparate. Only one of the so-called rhytons, or vertical beakers linking up at an angle with the foreparts of an animal, real or mythical, to serve as a pouring vessel, rates as a true masterpiece. Said to have surfaced at Erzincan, in Armenia, now part of Turkey, it was acquired by the British Museum in 1897. Another British Museum rhyton, reputedly from Mar'ash in Syria, displays Iranian influence, but is clearly not Iranian.


One wonders why the Louvre bronze rhyton ending with the foreparts of a gazelle is not in the show. It would look better than the heavy gold rhyton with the foreparts of a winged lion bought in France by the shah's regime shortly before the 1961 Paris exhibition "7,000 Years of Art in Iran." It bears a troubling similarity in workmanship to other gold pieces now recognized as duds. The same comment applies to a gold bowl from the same source. A beautiful silver bowl reputedly from Erzincan and another from the so-called "Oxus treasure" do not make up for the presence of four other shallow bowls that despite their cuneiform inscriptions again raise questions - as the catalogue admits.


The display, cramped and clumsy, does little to improve the mixed impression with which one leaves an exhibition probably put together under very difficult conditions. It should have been dazzling, and it is not.



Source: Herald Tribune





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