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Ancient Secrets of a Mighty Empire By British Museum

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 07, 2005 9:07 pm    Post subject: Ancient Secrets of a Mighty Empire By British Museum Reply with quote

Ancient Secrets of a Mighty Empire
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
The Times
Richard Holledge


The Iranian government almost put a stop to the British Museum’s latest exhibition, but Richard Holledge discovers that these Persian treasures are worthy of a wider audience.

For an empire as mighty as the Persian, you would expect an exhibition to open with a flourish of its mightiest artifacts. So it is with Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia at the British Museum. A towering, headless, statue of King Darius I greets you at the door, and in the main hall a limestone mastiff, unleashed to leave Iran for the first time since it stood guard at the gates of the great palaces of Persepolis, sits alongside the colossal reliefs that tell the story of Persian power and life.
That’s what you expect from the celebration of an empire that lasted from 550BC to 330 BC and spread from Libya to the Indus Valley, from the Persian Gulf, north to the Aral Sea, before it was torn apart by Alexander the Great. More than twenty countries came under its sway and legendary kings such as Cyrus the Great, Darius I and Xerxes ruled an empire that was characterized by sound administration, shrewd governance and religious toleration.

This is a ground breaking exhibition, and the fact that it is on at all is down to the drive and persistence of John Curtis, the show’s curator, and the enthusiasm of the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran. Indeed, so ground breaking did it seem to the new Iranian government that last month it almost cancelled the shipment of fabulous artifacts, many of which have never left the country before.

What we see captures the glory of an empire, but it is the detail that wins you over. Having visited Persepolis and marveled at the grandeur of the place – it covers more than 30 acres with vertiginous columns and stupendous statuary - I was lucky enough to see some of the precious material that is usually hidden in the museum vaults. It felt like discovering buried treasure.

Look closely at the statue of Darius and you will see the small blemishes where Alexander’s soldiers chipped away at their enemy; look at the sandals worn by the ‘royal hero’ battling the lion in the doorway to the main hall. We know he is not a king, but only a symbolic figure, because a king would have worn buttons on his sandals and this chap, whatever his symbolic import, has straps.

The relief casts that dominate two sides of the hall are massive, but the fascination – and the revelation - is in the minutiae. The originals in Persepolis have been rubbed smooth in places by the thousands of visitors, and others have been damaged by the nearby petro-chemical works, but these casts, made in the late 19th century, have been preserved in the cool confines of the British Museum, and show in detail the delegates from the 23 satrapies visiting the king with tributes of bowls, jars containing oils and perfumes, cloth, bracelets and clothes. They carry swords and axes, sporting bracelets and earrings and lead camels and mules.

Don’t dismiss the three-minute video that reconstructs the vastness of the palaces and gives an idea of the colours – not the monochrome limestone of the exhibits - but vivid reds and greens and blue which decorated the walls, doors and columns.

The richness of the imagery comes alive in the rooms dedicated to eating, luxury, governance and war. Take the room entitled The Royal Table for a glimpse into a world of conspicuous consumption.

Mealtimes at the royal table was an opportunity for net-working and winning influence with complicated seating arrangements, elaborate etiquette and exotic food; sweet grape jelly, candied turnips and radishes prepared with salt, candied capers, dates and figs and pomegranates.

The Greek chronicler Herodotus enviously recorded how the “richer Persians cause an ox, a horse, a camel and an ass to be baked whole and so served up to them….they eat little solid food but abundance of dessert ... they are very fond of wine and drink it in great quantities.”

If I had to choose one piece from among the golden goblets, duck-headed trays and silver bowls on display, to symbolize the glory, luxury and sophistication of the Persians, it would be a silver and bronze amphora handle, in the shape of a leaping ibex. A ravishing piece of workmanship.

The extravagance of the dining room extended into the luxury of everyday life in the palaces. Men and women wore gold bracelets with the heads of lions, rams or monsters, gold spirals often inlaid with turquoise or lapis lazuli or monsters. They wore finger rings, earrings of gold filigree inlaid with precious stones, and great chunky necklaces that could have been straight out of Vogue.

But it was also an empire of strict governance and tight control. In a section devoted to administration we see how coins were used to emphasise royal iconography, and how records were written with a stylus on clay to keep track of farm produce, economic details and rations.

The kings relied on an impressive road network and the skills of their horsemen. Nothing sums up the pride these inspired better than the little figurine used as a lynchpin for a chariot wheel. Attached to his arms would have been bracelets that jingled as the chariots moved. How flash - a bit like those BMW drivers who put independently whirling hubcaps on their wheels and cruise around the West End.

Two big events have been arranged to celebrate this milestone exhibition. The Friends of Iran, an expatriate group, will gather for a dinner worthy of Darius himself, while another will be hosted by one of Iran’s vice president. An altogether drier affair.

Both have their different agendas, but both should remember the words Cyrus the Great had inscribed on his tomb set in the plain at Pasargadae near Persepolis: “Mortal! I am Cyrus … who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not then my monument.”

Even he might have been surprised to discover that 1500 years later, far from being rejected or forgotten, the glories of his empire rise again in central London.

Forgotten Empire; the World of Ancient Persia. From September 9. British Museum, Great Russell, Street, London WC1 3DG 0207 323 8000. www.britishmuseum.co.uk
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PostPosted: Wed Sep 07, 2005 11:38 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Video report of the exhibition:

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PostPosted: Wed Sep 07, 2005 11:39 pm    Post subject: US forces should take a lesson from the Persian kings Reply with quote

US forces should take a lesson from the Persian kings

Simon Tisdall
Wednesday September 7, 2005
The Guardian
Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/iran/story/0,12858,1564037,00.html

Present-day US fears about an Iranian-dominated super-state embracing southern Iraq and the Gulf have a basis in historical fact, according to an exhibition charting the exploits of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, which opens at the British Museum on Friday.

Cyrus and his successors, Xerxes and Darius, created the world's first superpower in 550BC, ruling territories from central Asia and the Indus valley to Arabia and north Africa. But the Persian kings appear to have had better luck in Iraq than President George Bush has had.

When Persian forces overran Babylonia in 539BC, the inhabitants surrendered peacefully. According to contemporary accounts, Cyrus was greeted as a liberator because of his just policies - and tough attitude to terrorists.

"When I entered Babylon I did not allow anyone to terrorise the land," a text known as the Cyrus Cylinder quotes him as saying. "I strove for peace in Babylon and all other sacred cities. I put an end to the inhabitants' misfortune."

John Curtis, the curator of the exhibition, Forgotten Empire: the World of Ancient Persia, said: "Cyrus was no despot, more an enlightened autocrat. He was surprisingly tolerant. He made no attempt to establish a state religion. He is said to have freed the Jews from captivity, allowing them to return to Jerusalem."

There are other historical echoes for modern-day empires to ponder. Even the poorest subject had the right to a royal audience, Mr Curtis said. The Persians developed an early form of federalism, governing through client rulers and provincial governors, known as satraps. Darius built a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea - a forerunner of the Suez canal; introduced the first dollar-like global currency, the darik, and tax and communications systems; and created an empire-wide postal service whose "we always deliver" motto and emblem were supposedly imitated more than 2,000 years later by the US Mail and Pony Express.

Technologically, the Persian military machine was state of the art. Its elite troops were known as the Immortals, equivalent to US special forces. And pre-emptive wars and regime change were all in a day's work for the great kings.

The pre-Islamic Achaemenid dynasty was toppled by Alexander the Great, who burned the great palaces of Persepolis, some of whose surviving artefacts are on show for the first time at the British Museum. But its influence was long-lasting, Mr Curtis said. Christianity, Judaism and Islam were all influenced to a discernible extent by the original Zoroastrian concept, adopted by Mr Bush's "war on terror", of perpetual struggle between good and evil.

Despite the aspersions of Greek historians, the Persians' political, administrative, cultural and artistic legacy formed "a linear link" via the Greeks and Romans to subsequent European and north American civilisation, he added.

"It was very advanced, very sophisticated, progressive and tolerant, although not democratic," Mr Curtis said. "It was the largest empire at that time."

The organisers say the exhibition "challenges the myths that have portrayed the Persians as despotic and ruthless people" and aims to promote greater understanding of the Middle East, where modern Iran is seen, at least in the west, as a potential threat.

An Iranian diplomat admitted that Tehran's image, tarnished by anti-western ayatollahs, US hostility and nuclear tensions which may climax later this month, could be better.

"There is a lot of ignorance about Iran," the diplomat said. "We hope that the exhibition will give a different perspective."
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2005 7:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

yes, Since the British Colonio-fascist Empire certainly hastn't learnt anything from the ancient tolerant Empire of Persia,

Causing much misery and devestation to many nations the world over; and in Iran particularly - where they often empowered the backward islamist forces as a preventive measure for countries advancement, and to do their spy work for looting of the country as well as attempt to separate the oil rich province of Khouzestan.

Hopefully the "U.S. Empire" will learn a thing or two from the mighty yet tolerant and secular persian empire. the first thing they should learn is the spread of secular governments in Middle East, not the backing of religious constitutions and despots, like the Brits always wanted for the region, and definitely not the separatists either!

Paayande Iran
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