The World of Ancient Persia
Review of exhibition at the British Museum
Country Life, 2005
Burnished gold armlets that flow into winged griffins, fluted silver drinking bowls that have been touched by the lips of the Kings of Kings, a mysterious miniature portrait carved out of lapis lazuli and a haunting monumental black dog that still gleams like obsidian from the oiled polish of centuries of devotion. No one with any pretension to taste, knowledge or delight in the antique can afford to miss the treasures revealed in this autumns ‘Forgotten Empire’ exhibition. It is in itself a surprising balancing act that brings together the collections of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Louvre and the British Museum with funding from such ancien-regime sources as the Iran Heritage Foundation and BP. Here at least, a shared passion in sharing an understanding of the past, has surmounted our many differences. Such generosity is to be greatly applauded - most especially as the very title of the exhibition, ‘Forgotten Empire’ seems to confess to an uphill task in educating a Western audience about ancient Persia.
But can this be true? Who amongst us can have forgotten about the realm of Xerxes and doomed Darius? The problem is surely not that we have forgotten the Persian Empire but that we are conditioned to see her as the Eastern Adversary waiting to be worsted by the democratic cities of Hellas. Whether we are remembering that first death-rewarded run from the field of Marathon, the self-sacrifice of the Spartans who calmly combed their hair while waiting for death in the pass of Thermopylae, or Salamis when the Athenians under Themistocles took to the wooden walls of their navy, who is it that remains the enemy? It is always the Persians who stand outside the gates. At their head is the great king Xerxes surrounded by his elite bodyguard of ‘Immortals’ while around him flow the countless hordes summoned up from out of the East; of Bactrians, Medes, Elamites, Ionians, Egyptians, Lybians, Armenians, Babylonians, Pheonicians and Lydians under the command of their various satraps.
However, the haunting beauty of the treasures from ‘Forgotten Empire’ work their magic to create some new found emotional sympathy for this ‘Other Empire’. For in practically every piece of jewelry or carving there is evidence of an enriching cultural synchronism, as winged bulls from Assyria meet up with the bot-bellied Egyptian God Bes, or the winged genius figures of Mesopotamian lore brush up against the dynamic humanism of Greek sculptures from Ionia. This fascinating diversity is mirrored in the way the Empire allowed all languages to prosper (so much so that the Aramaic of the Semitic Near East emerged as the accepted lingua franca) and made a habit of setting up multi-lingual inscriptions. They also set up a uniform currency and a standard for public works, in the Royal Road and a ‘Suez’ canal between the Nile and the Red Sea and the first of the formal Persian gardens that continue to amaze and enchant us. We must also remember that it was Cyrus (the founder of the Persian Empire) that allowed the exiled Jews in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. He is also credited with restoring the indigenous worship of Mardak to Mesopotamia, but his own beliefs remain so private that they remain unknown - even to such eminent historians as the BM’s curator John Curtis.
Was Cyrus a supporter of the Zoroastrian faith guarded by the Magi or is his choice of a royal city at Passargadae evidence of his loyalty to the universal cult of the old Mother Goddess whose last flicker survives in the still enduring Persian festival of the New Year? Are the monumental remains of the three great administrative palace cities of the Persian Empire (Perseopolos, Susa and Passargadae) no more than the jewel-like Camelots that stood as a permanent centre around which gathered seasonal tented cities drawing together a court of warrior knights? Why did Alexander, who would burn Persepolis to the ground and incinerate whole libraries of sacred literature, cry at the tomb of the Cyrus? Was it because he realized, like that early orientalist-traveller Claudius James Rich who visited Cyrus’s restrained and handsome tomb in 1821, that this belonged ‘to the best, the most illustrious, and the most interesting of all Oriental sovereigns’.
The Achaemenid Empire established by Cyrus lasted two hundred years while that of Alexander disintegrated within two years. I left determined to remove the title ‘Great’ from that adventurer from Macedonia, who murdered his own father and killed a hundred of his own page boys before he drunk himself into an early grave, and replace it back on the brow of Cyrus.
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by Barnaby Rogerson