Forgotten Empire - British Museum

By: Maryam Tabibzadeh

I had read and heard extensively about British Museum's exhibits of the Persian Empire. As an Iranian expatriate who deeply resented
Iran's current reputation for terrorism so widely covered by our Western media, this was a welcomed breath of fresh air. I must confess that as I entered the museum, I was bewildered as to why such a sudden shift? Why the British Museum is suddenly attempting to negate popular notions of history? The noticeable impression that the museum leaves is that Greece was not the cradle of civilization, as recounted by Herodotus and other ancient historians of fame. In fact, the Persians' contributions in an empire that stretched over 3,000 miles, from North Africa to Central Asia were far more than the Greeks and it is time to do them justice.

Forgotten Empire, the world of Ancient Persia, brings together rare treasures from Iran's Museums, Persepolis, Paris and Britain to recreate the glory of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid Great Kings, from 550-330 BC. How the museum was able to get reliefs from Persepolis and the Museum of Tehran is another story. (Fun fact: BP has proudly enlisted their kind and faithful support on the website. You figure it out). The exhibition explores the Persian's rule; the magnificent royal palaces at Persepolis; the wealth of the Empire's art and architecture; and the legacy of the Great Kings after the conquest of their empire by Alexander.

Upon entering the exhibition, the grand figure that stands before each visitor is a Statue of Darius. Set on a rectangular base, the head and a part of the upper body are missing, but the statute is magnificent and quite massive in appearance, and of the finest statues to have survived the Achaemenid period. The king wears a robe, which is inscribed in the three official languages of the Empire's Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, as well as Egyptian hieroglyphics. As you wander into the exhibit, you find yourself in the "Palaces of Kings," which has artifacts from the magnificent royal palaces at Persepolis, Pasargadae and Susa. One of the most amazing constructions is a plaster cast of the stone relief on the staircase of the Palace of Darius. On either side of the panel are scenes of a lion clinging on to the back of a bull and biting into its hindquarters, one of the most powerful images in Achaemenid art. A video in the room tells us that all the palaces were quite opulent and extremely colorful. We learn that only ruins are left since Alexander burned all the palaces down to rubble when he conquered in 331 B.C. To anyone familiar with Iran or Iranian art, the architectural elements and statues are all distinctively Persian: a small, beautiful blue lapis lazuli statue of a Persian noble; a relief decoration showing rosettes; a colorful glazed brick panel of a guard from Susa dressed richly in Persian costume with bow, quiver and spear; and a stone relief showing a winged sphinx with a bearded man wearing a horned headdress.

The next room is called the "Royal Table," where the lavish lifestyle of the Persian Kings can be seen. The glittering gold and silver shows not only the great wealth of the empire, but the amazing skills of the Persian metalsmiths. A gold horn-shaped rhyton terminating in the foreparts of a winged lion is one of the most glittering and opulent in the collection. A gilded silver and bronze amphora handle in the form of a leaping winged ibex is one of the most intricate and striking to me.

In the "Control of the Empire" room, we learn that the Persians were great chariot-riders, and used horses, harnesses and skilled weaponry for transport and warfare. There is a small intricate gold four-horse chariot model that shows two Persian chariot-riders. Other figures include a gold male rider, equestrians and horse-shaped vessels. Arrowheads and daggers color the room, and a colossal gold dagger with handles ending in lion heads catches my eye. An Athenian water jug showing a fight between Greeks and Persians is also on display. A bearded Persian is mounted on a white horse and aims a spear at a Greek warrior on foot, one of the last vases to show a fight between the Greeks and the Persians.

The glittering displays of gold jewelry in "Luxury in Life and Death" are truly Persian. We see intricate gold-work in the form of rings, clothing ornaments and plaques, spiral bracelets, bracelets with ibex and goat heads, massive golden armlets with leaping lions, massive dangling golden earrings, and necklaces with charms and pendants. Persian kings worshipped the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda, and these objects were taken with them after their death, which we discovered from the excavation of a very rich grave at Susa. We also learn that although Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, this was not the end of the Ancient Persian Civilization, which continued for another 1000 years under the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties.

The final room, which undoubtedly piques my interest, is called "Enduring Legacy." Cyrus the Great was the first and greatest of the kings, no doubt. Under his rule, the Empire stretched the farthest and was the most powerful. A benevolent, tolerant ruler who conquered and freed slaves, most notably letting the Hebrews back to their own faith, Cyrus also created the first human rights doctrine known as the Cyrus Cylinder. Encased behind bullet-proof glass, I examined this amazing iconic object where human rights was first enshrined into basic law by the greatest of all Persian Kings, some 2500 years ago. But what is the "Enduring Legacy" of these Great Kings? A human rights doctrine that other nation-states continue to follow, but not our own? I couldn't help but to feel ashamed. The final placard I recall reading was next to a small, modest display, which recounted the 2500-year commemoration of the Persian Empire at Persepolis by the Pahlavis. These celebrations were amazingly
reproved by both the western press and even some of our intellectuals at the time, and the museum unwittingly decided to follow suit by deeming them as "propaganda."

Fresh out of the museum, I undoubtedly took great pride in the Iranian artifacts, architecture, jewels and reliefs, which were proudly on display, but I also felt sad and particularly unsettled. As I walked aimlessly under the overcast sky, I was drowned in thoughts of the past glories of my country. My mind churned on this idea for hours after, and my heart ached at the thought of what that great empire has in fact amounted to. What kind of legacy has been left now, and what has happened to this once magnificent land? A revolution and 25 years of ensuing turmoil? It seems unreal. In pursuit of fanaticism and hegemony, we have neither respected nor paid heed to past glories, legacies or traditions. What would the kings of kings, Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes think? A region where art, culture and Zoroastrianism once flourished is now a decrepit Islamic country, where human rights atrocities are a daily occurrence, and where the political ideology, led by mullahs, is reaching farther and farther back to the Middle Ages. And now with the 'election' of Iran's most radical group, let's contemplate President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's recent words, "We have bloodthirsty foes like the United States and Israel who could attack us with all they have. So, why should we deny ourselves any category of weapons just to please the savage European powers?" Is this the great legacy of Cyrus's tolerance and respect for humanity?

So I now give thanks to the British Museum, whatever their motive, for such a truly magnificent work. It helped me understand and appreciate issues that as a young Iranian exile, I did not readily come into contact with. It not only gave me an immense sense of reassurance and confidence in my people, but it was a beautiful, lustrous hope of light in these hapless times. When I think of Iran and Persians, I too think of greatness, art, richness, glory and tolerance. Not what I see and read everyday.

If history can teach us anything, it should teach us that our potential is much greater than we realize. After perusing through our incredible past that magical day in London, I firmly believe that. Perhaps by celebrating our great history, commemorating our tolerance and respect for human rights, and glorifying the richness of our culture, we can have a solid, unifying basis again to pave a peaceful future for the people of Iran.