& CULTURAL NEWS©
and Legends of Ancient Persia
- 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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the 15th century, Davani still observed that royal gatherings once took
place at Persepolis on new year's day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.