Bridge across the Persian gulf
Richard Holledge
August 26, 2005


IN 522BC, Darius, "Great King, King of Kings" as he modestly described himself, could survey his Persian empire with understandable satisfaction. It spread from Libya and Greece to the west, Afghanistan to the east and as far north as the Aral Sea.

Now he needed to celebrate his power with palaces, stately pleasure domes, walls and towers. He settled on a fertile plain northwest of Shiraz, the city of roses and nightingales, where he had a mighty terrace constructed out of the rocky hillside and threw up a conurbation of vaunting columns and shimmering halls to create Persepolis.

He brought in hundreds of artists, perhaps under the supervision of a Greek sculptor, and they set to in teams of seven in a frenzy of creativity, carving and decorating that was to last 50 years.

Next month another team of workmen will descend on Iran's National Archeological Museum in Tehran to dismantle an astonishing number of works of antiquity and take them to the British Museum for the biggest exhibition of Persian art yet assembled outside Iran. And, after much negotiation, it has been agreed that the great limestone statue of Darius, headless but dramatic and standing proudly in the museum, will be taking centre stage among hitherto unseen items of jewellery, gold and silver, rare artefacts and dazzlingly precise reliefs from the Achaemenid era, which lasted from about 550BC to 330BC.

For John Curtis, curator of the exhibition, it is the culmination of a career that has drawn him to Persia since 1969. He discusses his passion with an academic gravity that barely disguises his excitement as we detour from the dusty ruins of Persepolis to sit on the terrace of a tearoom overlooking the great flower-filled, traffic-jammed, square of Maidan Naqsh-e Jahan in Isfahan, a few hundred kilometres to the northwest.

Tired shoppers from the nearby bazaar can sip tea and eat sweet cakes or relax with the gentle aromatic burble of the quylun - the hubble-bubble - and gaze at the glorious Imam mosque with its chiaroscuro of blue, yellow and white mosaic and the Palace of Shah Abbas I, who added a veranda so he could watch the polo below.

But these are merely 16th-century splendours. The marvels of Persepolis are almost 1000 years older. "The first time I went to Iran was as a student of Western Asiatic archeology from London University," says Curtis. "I was working on a dig in the west of the country and hitch-hiked to Persepolis. I don't think you could do that now. It seems extraordinary when I think back.

"It was a Damascene moment. It was such a surprise to see how well things were preserved, and nothing prepared me for the scale and the grandeur. Remember, it is about the same length as the Acropolis in Athens but almost five times as wide."

Perversely, though, it is the detail that arrests the sightseer. At the top of the monumental steps that lead from the plain to the city is a small rectangle of squares, used by waiting supplicants and bored guards to while away the time until they were called to the royal presence.

Curtis points out the graffito carved into the Gate of all Nations by renowned explorer Henry Stanley and the details of the great reliefs, with their depictions of suitors from the Persian satrapies, and the statues of massive double-headed bulls and the mythical homa birds high on their columns.

"The first time I went back after the revolution of 1979, when the ayatollahs led by Khomeini drove out the shah, was in 1991 with one of the first tour groups," he says. "Everything had come to a stop, really, particularly with the eight-year war with Iraq in which millions lost their lives. Iran is still scarred by that and you see posters of the 'martyrs' wherever you go.

"I half-expected that the post-revolutionary zeal would have led to the statues being defaced or pulled down, but I was impressed by how much had been left undamaged. There had been no post-revolutionary looting like there had been in Iraq, when their own people raided the museum at the end of the recent war, though it has been said that one of Khomeini's mullahs wanted Persepolis demolished because it was a symbol of an imperial past.

"But the only empire they really wanted to distance themselves from was that of the shah. Most of the looting had been done in the early years of the first Islamic revolution, between the 7th and 10th centuries, and some faces on the reliefs have been obliterated."

The biggest vandal was Alexander, who destroyed the Persian empire in about 328BC and razed the place when he swept through on his way to the east. Three thousand camels were used to carry away the booty. Now the effects of acid rain and a huge petrochemical works near Shiraz are taking their toll.

Curtis, whose wife Vesta is Iranian and the curator of ancient Iranian coins at the British Museum, goes on: "The Iranians have always been proud of their heritage - you can see that by the swarms of visitors to the site - but it is fair to say that with the political climate as it was, this exhibition could not have been arranged 10, even five, years ago."

During the few days I spent in Iran, the government-backed Tehran Times was making much of Israel taking delivery of US-made bunker-buster bombs and CNN was carrying pieces about Iran's potential for nuclear weapons.

"Certainly, culturally the links are growing, though, yes, the politics are less clear. Unlike the recent Turks exhibition, which was an attempt to establish their identity, the Iranians don't feel the need to establish a Persian identity. This exhibition will inform people about the cultural heritage and is not intended to be political.

"There is a desire for closer cultural relations and for exchanges among academics and universities. We are even talking about bringing an exchange of groups of schoolchildren to Britain."

Will Western women want to join the exchange? Wearing the chador, the robe designed to cover the head and conceal overly seductive curves, is still rigorously enforced and is resented by most Iranian women. The moment my British Airways flight took off, the women removed their chadors as fast as they could say gin and tonic (Iran is an alcohol-free country). But there is nothing like the post-revolution ferocity captured by Azar Nafisi in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which young women were arrested for eating an apple in a seductive fashion. Today, young women make the most of what they can show with artful make-up, little blonde flashes in their hair, their chadors topped with spectacular sunglasses, elaborate fingernails and, increasingly, little retrousse noses peeping brazenly out from the cowls, the product of artful plastic surgery.

Yet, despite the limits on the freedom of women, many hold important jobs and there is, surprisingly, a comprehensive creche system. "Things are more relaxed now than in 1979 in terms of the respect women are accorded," Curtis says. "There are many women scholars and many hold key positions at the Tehran museum."

Maybe not that different from the great days of the Achaemenids. We know that Darius had a powerful and scheming wife and that Xerxes was dominated by Esther, the biblical character who persuaded him not to kill the Jews. But what you will not see on any of the great reliefs of Persepolis is one single woman.

The Times

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia opens at the British Museum on September 8.