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CAIS ARCHAEOLOGICAL & CULTURAL NEWS©

 

Forgotten, or Mis-Remembered?

 

05 January 2006

 

 

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Stone relief from the palace of Artaxerxes at Persepolis, now in the Persepolis Museum; Fragment from the Apadana frieze at Persepolis, showing a member of the Ethiopian delegation to the Persian king, now in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran


LONDON, (CAIS) -- Once upon a time every schoolboy would have known something about the Ancient Persian Empire, subject of Forgotten Empire, an exhibition currently at the British Museum in London, if only because the Achaemenid Persian kings, first Darius and then Xerxes, famously set out to subjugate the Ancient Greek city states, and particularly Athens, in 490 and 480 BC.

The story of Greek resistance and eventual military success, along with the names of battles such as those at Thermopylae, Marathon and Salamis, were once the staple of every education, and the confrontation of Greek and Persian, pitting tiny but largely democratic Greece against the vastly superior might of the Persian Empire, an early example of "oriental despotism", was long seen as a kind of "clash of civilisations" avant la lettre, not least in the accounts of it left by the Ancient Greeks themselves.

However, the curators of this major exhibition, organised in cooperation with the National Museum of Iran in Tehran and the Louvre in Paris and containing objects never before seen outside Iran, have evidently felt that the Persian Empire is today in danger of being unjustly forgotten, or rather mis-remembered, largely thanks to the unflattering portrayals of it left by Ancient Greek writers.

While the Ancient Greeks, or at least the Athenians, appear to have been rather self-obsessed and introspective, giving the world incomparable accounts of their history, philosophy and literature, the Ancient Persians seem to have been almost completely tongue-tied, leaving only thousands of clay tablets setting down their business transactions and accountancy records for future generations.

Ancient Persian history, therefore, still tends to be seen through Greek eyes, and the Greeks tended to project onto Persia everything that they felt that they themselves were not, contrasting alleged Persian despotism, in particular, to Greek democracy and thereby laying the foundations for a story of European freedoms and Asian despotism that has arguably still not left us. Forgotten Empire is an attempt to set the record straight, and if it does not quite succeed in breaking the spell of traditional Greek views, not least because of the lack of surviving evidence, it does at least go some way in redressing the balance.

The archaeological elements this exhibition contains, taken from Achaemenid sites in what was once its heartland in modern-day Iran, are particularly valuable in this regard, and they should go a long way in encouraging reconsideration of the culture that constructed the magnificent Persian royal palaces at Susa and Persepolis.

The remains of these are today to be found near the southern Iranian cities of Shush and Shiraz, and while the objects on display cannot really substitute for a visit to the sites themselves, something the present writer was lucky enough to have undertaken late last year, the casts of the friezes on display and the computer-assisted reconstruction of the original buildings do at least give a sense of the fascinating qualities of Ancient Persian art and design.

The Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC, and, uniting the territories of the Ancient Medes and Persians to form the core of what was probably the largest political unit the world had then seen, it stretched at its height from what is today Pakistan in the east to well into Europe in the west. Though the empire's heartland in Iran now contains the most spectacular Achaemenid sites, there are also important remains elsewhere, including in Anatolia, now part of Turkey but once made up of Persian provinces, and in Egypt, part of Achaemenid territory from its conquest by the Persian king Cambyses in 525 BC to the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332.

One of the themes of Ancient Persian history is the challenge of administering so vast a territory, itself made up of many different cultures and of areas possessing their own distinctive histories and civilisations. This was obviously true of Egypt, which many times revolted against Persian rule, breaking free altogether between 405 and 343 BC, but it was true, too, of territories closer to the empire's centre, such as Babylonia, now in Iraq and conquered by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC, or Lydia in Anatolia, defeated by Cyrus in 546.

Indeed, it was Persian suspicion that mainland Greece was assisting the Greek cities of Asia Minor in rebelling against Persian rule that provoked Darius into mounting what seems to have been a punishment raid on Athens in 490 BC, occupying Attica in doing so, with Persian forces returned ten years later under Xerxes to burn the temples on the acropolis.

Yet, as this exhibition emphasises, the surviving Persian evidence suggests that the Achaemenid Empire was not quite the tyranny that Ancient Greek writers sometimes took it for, and there have even been attempts, reviewed here, to represent it instead as an early champion of multiculturalism and universal human rights. This is born out, for example, by the intriguing "Cyrus Cylinder", a cylindrical inscription that is part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and is on show in this exhibition.

The Achaemenids, unlike later empire- builders, seem not to have attempted to impose uniformity on their vast domains, and the system of local governors, or satraps, they instituted meant that each region of the empire was left pretty much free to run its own affairs. The Cyrus Cylinder in particular, left by Cyrus the Great at Babylon after his conquest of the city in 539 BC, speaks of ending corrupt rule and guaranteeing religious and cultural self-expression, in contrast to the policies of previous Assyrian and Babylonian kings.

The Persian king or his representatives would occasionally visit the provinces in order to ensure that local rulers did not revolt and that they continued to remit tax revenues to the royal treasury at Persepolis, and a network of "royal roads" connecting the centre of the empire in Iran to its outlying territories was used to move Persian troops, called "immortals" by the Greeks, rapidly across Asia should the occasion demand it. But cultural and linguistic uniformity was not required, and even in its heartlands the Persian empire used three official languages, originally belonging to the various peoples making up the empire and displayed here in various records.

The empire also seems to have used multiple currencies, at least in the west, the east apparently getting by without using a currency at all. And though the religion of the Persian kings was probably Zoroastrianism, named after the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) who may have lived as early as the 10th century BC, theirs was a rather relaxed form of this creed, and it was not one that was either enforced on the population or strictly codified, as happened under later Persian dynasties.

All in all, one gets the impression that Persian rule was a rather relaxed affair, punctuated by sometimes violent episodes as imperial troops swept across Asia to assert the king's authority over local bosses, but otherwise leaving them well alone. However, despite the curators' best efforts one does not get the sense that it encouraged the civic virtues or public debate, unlike in neighbouring Greece: this was a strictly stratified, caste society, and politics was mostly a matter of palace intrigue, various of the later kings suffering the fate of many absolute rulers everywhere, whether from east or west, being stabbed to death by palace eunuchs, or falling victim to dynastic feuds.

In addition to its emphasis on the character of Persian rule and on the cultural achievements represented by the palaces at Persepolis and Susa, the exhibition also provides an overview of Achaemenid art and architecture. Anyone who has visited the remains at Persepolis will have vivid memories of the triumphal friezes decorating the great staircases leading up to the Apadana, the king's many-columned audience hall, and 19th-century casts of these are included here. Perhaps modelled on earlier Assyrian examples, these show the subject peoples of the empire bearing gifts to present to the Persian king, their different physiognomies and styles of dress being particularly finely modelled.

Persepolis also represented a kind of cultural synthesis in itself, men and materials being brought from across the empire to aid in its construction. As John Curtis and Shahrokh Razmjou note in their informative catalogue essay, there was little tradition of large-scale building in stone in Persia before the Achaemenids, and Darius therefore drew on Assyrian models and expertise in his construction work. However, as a foundation inscription found at Susa records, this process of creative synthesis was not restricted to the borrowing of Assyrian elements alone. Indeed, according to this inscription, exhibited here, cedars for the palace buildings came from Lebanon, gold from Sardis in Anatolia, silver from Egypt and ivory from Ethiopia, other commodities and workers coming from similarly far-flung parts of the empire.

A similar foundation plaque from Persepolis, discovered buried beneath the main audience hall, has Darius saying that "this is the kingdom which I hold, from the Scythians beyond Sogdiana, thence unto Ethiopia; from Sind, thence unto Sardis, which Ahuramazda [a Zoroastrian god] the greatest of the gods bestowed upon me." It must have sometimes seemed, particularly when viewed from the luxury of Persepolis, that the Achaemenid empire founded by Cyrus was pretty much invincible.

However, this was not so, and the story of the Persian Empire's collapse before the advancing forces of Alexander the Great from 334 BC is at least as fascinating as its apogee only a few generations earlier. Having defeated the local satraps in Anatolia, Alexander arrived at Persepolis in 331 and famously torched it in a gesture sometimes seen as revenge for Persia's burning of the acropolis temples at Athens some 150 years before. According to the Greek writer Diodorus, the palace vaults were packed with gold and silver and Alexander did not hesitate to loot this, thousands of animals being required to carry it away. The exhibition includes items of Persian jewellery and gold and silverware, showing what this booty might have looked like.

In a final chapter to the exhibition catalogue, Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis considers the legacy of Achaemenid Persia, showing how later dynasties sought to use it for their own ends. The Sasanid dynasty, enemies of the Romans, associated their rule with that of the Achaemenids, for example, though the historical record had already become severely blurred. By the time the Persian poet Firdowsi composed his epic Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, in the 11th century CE, the surviving Achaemenid monuments had become associated with legendary figures such as Jamshid or Rustam, early Iranian kings, explaining the modern Iranian name for Persepolis, Takht-e- Jamshid.

The 19th-century Qajar dynasty later also sought to identify their rule with that of the Achaemenids, as did the Pahlavis that replaced them, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi adopting the Cyrus Cylinder as one of his emblems and celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus in lavish style at Persepolis in 1971.

Driving from Shiraz to the ruins of Persepolis today, best done at dawn as the light comes up across the surrounding plain and before the sun becomes too hot, the visitor approaches the monument along a wooded road laid out by Mohamed Reza Pahlavi in preparation for these celebrations. Persepolis itself is set against a mountain background, the empty tombs of the Achaemenid kings Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes being carved into the rock face not far away at Naqsh-e-Rostam.

Before arriving at the site, one comes upon a mess of wrecked pavilions half-hidden in the woods, apparently the remains of the former Shah's celebrations, destroyed by Revolutionary Guards after 1979. It is a marvelously atmospheric place. If the current British Museum exhibition captures even one tenth of that atmosphere, then it will have been well worth going to see.

 

  

 

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News Source: Al-Ahram Weekly

 

 

 

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