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October 11, 2005

Why the Elgin Marbles should go to Iran - Christie Davies visits Forgotten Empire at the British Museum and is persuaded that the Elgin Marbles should be sent to Persepolis

Posted by Christie Davies

Forgotten Empire: the World of Ancient Persia
British Museum, London
9th September 2005 - 8th January 2006
Saturday - Wednesday 10am - 5.30pm (last admission 4.45pm)
Thursday - Friday 10am - 8.30pm (last admission 7.45pm)


The Persia of the Achaemenid great kings 550 BC - 330 BC is indeed a "Forgotten Empire" known to us only from biased Greek accounts of an enemy. Yet for two hundred years the Persians dominated the Middle East with an efficiently organized empire that stretched from Libya to the Indus, from the Aral Sea to the Nile valley from Thrace to Afghanistan. The Empire only came to an end when attacked by Alexander the Great in 334 BC. The victory of Alexander's armies culminated in the looting of the Persian palaces. We still remember the burning of Persepolis in 331 BC by the western barbarians under Fluelyn's Alexander the Pig.

The Greek version of events is that in 499 BC to 479 BC the independence of their squabbling city states was menaced by the Persian empire but that they united against it and won. Thermopylae, Marathon and all that. In fact the Greeks were just a petty nuisance at the far western edge of imperial Persia, against whom it was necessary to send punitive expeditions because they were causing trouble in Asia Minor. Sometimes the expeditions came unstuck, much as British imperial incursions into Afghanistan in the 19th century did. To believe the Greek version of the nature of ancient Persia is like taking seriously an account by a Pathan tribesman from the wrong end of the Khyber Pass about how British India was run and organized.

The Greeks cannot even take credit for Alexander's conquests. When the Macedonians first became powerful, the Greek city states went grovelling to the rulers of Persia to ask for help to defend themselves against the new Balkan power to their north, the ancestor of today's Macedonian Republic.

After Alexander had prevailed, it seemed for a time that Persia might be Hellenised but within just over a hundred years it was the Parthians who ruled Persia. The Parthians and their Sassanian successors, the natural and autochthonous heirs of the Achaemenid dynasty defeated by Alexander, then ruled Persia for eight hundred years. The wretched Greeks were only an oppressive interlude in Persian history, mainly noted for their deliberate destruction of Persia's great indigenous works of art and architecture. Greek vandalism was a mixture of greed and malice and an attempt to eliminate the old Achaemenid dynasty by destroying the artistic symbols of its greatness.

Here in the exhibition Forgotten Empire are the casts of some of the great reliefs that remain in the ruins of Darius's palace in Persepolis, notably in the Apadana, the entrance hall. The most striking of these is the tribute procession, with delegates from every corner of the empire, Bactrians bringing two-humped camels, Indians bearing perfume and Syrians bracelets, the Ethiopians, the men of Gandara and Parthia. Even Greeks are bearing gifts. Each group in its own distinctive costume is led by a Mede or Persian official, and marked off from the next group by a stylised cypress tree. All look forward as they proceed forward not as individuals but as parts in a procession that is itself a tribute, a tribute to the power of the King.

My mind was taken back to my own visit to Persepolis around the time when the Iranians had been mourning the tragic death of Hussein at Kerbala, one of the most solemn times of their year. In Persepolis there were only a few tubby Western ladies in awkward black, unable to wear with any grace the handsome, modest, widow-dark, all-enveloping, all-concealing clothing decreed for women by Iran's wise religious leaders. They clung close to their guide and I had time to wander round the site and think.

My memory now skipped Proust-wise to my thoughts in Persepolis of my earlier time in Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi. At the top end of Lutyens' city were the columns presented to India in the 1930s by the self-governing British dominions, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, each rich with badge and symbol. Below them ran the way to India Gate, the memorial to the 70,000 Indians who were killed in World War I, loyally serving the King Emperor, the Saxe-Coburg dynasty's successor to the Persian-speaking court of Delhi. I bought in Delhi a coloured print of King George V, Emperor of India with the Rajahs and Ruling Princes. The King stands tall before his throne, the lion and the unicorn high on the wall behind him; his viceroy stands deferential at his right hand, his commander in chief a step down from the dais on his left and the rajahs swirling below.

Yet in India as in Persia the statues of imperial triumph have vanished. Darius has come to The Forgotten Empire exhibition at the British Museum headless from the National Museum in Tehran. The opulent statue of the King- Emperor Edward VII, once the pride of India, has been banished to Toronto. The statue of Rufus Isaacs, Viceroy of India, now stands unknown in a tiny park in Eldon Square in the ugly and obscure town of Reading, from which he took his title. No doubt drunken couples climb the railings at night and have sex against his imperial shoes. All empires pass away, and their monuments are destroyed and scattered. The Statue of Liberty will one day grace a museum in Chungking or Bangalore. Yet enough remains of Darius's world in The Forgotten Empire exhibition to reveal to us the wondrous order and extent and range of subject peoples in imperial Persia.

Round the corner in another hall of the British Museum from The Forgotten Empire exhibition lie the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon. Many have commented on the clear Persian influence on Elgin's Marbles but few have noticed how inferior the Greek version is. When you look at the prancing Greek horses, you could be looking at something by Stubbs or Sir Alfred Munnings. They merely look like horses, period.

What is the point of that? The Persian horses are far more; they are subordinated to the order of things, anonymous identical items in the immortal cavalry that sustained a dynasty. Herodotus says of the Persians that they were educated in three things alone – to ride, to use bow and arrow and to always tell the truth; such were the things dear to the people who gave Zarathustra his name. That one of the tribe of Odysseus should be amazed that telling the truth could be regarded as a virtue is hardly surprising. I know, for I have invigilated Greeks in examinations. Raastgoo baashim.

However, what I wish to stress here is the importance of cavalry to the Persian empire; their knowledge of how to portray horses must have far exceeded that of the mere game-playing Greeks. The Persian artists did not waste their skill in the fluid depiction of prancing excitement. They knew that the horse was a mere means to an end, a vehicle from which to discharge an arrow. Even today we speak of the Achaemenids' successors' Parthian shot. Some Parthians moved so fast that an arrow fired backwards at the enemy as they rode away could remain stationary in the air. A horse is but a tank without an engine. In The Forgotten Empire exhibition the underlying point is best seen, though, in the great Persian relief of a lion attacking a bull. Where a Greek sculptor would have tried to capture a mere surface in space, the Persian artist has, in an almost abstract way, captured the very essence of leonine ferocity. It is what the bull would have seen and felt as the lion hit, the huge claws that grip and tear, the broad head and glaring eyes above the teeth already sunk into flesh. It is an imagined beast, dreadful and terrible and exceeding strong, one that devours and breaks into pieces; it is more than a lion. In the world of the imagined, hideous comes before Phidias.

The Greek tradition, with its sense of form expressed through an unnaturally perfect human body and its ruler and compass architecture, has been the curse of European art, because it became an ideal to be imitated to the neglect of other equally valid artistic traditions. It is perhaps notable that when Professor John Onians, Britain's greatest living art historian, urged his British colleagues and their students to devote themselves to "World Art" with all its diversity and richness, it was the anachronistic monocultured Hellenophiles who opposed him most fiercely. They could bear no criticism; when Onians gave his historic first seminar on Greek art, mathematics and militarism, the Hellenophile scholar operating the slide projector, broke off his work half way through and refused to continue. Yet who has not been bored by the endless sameness of Greek temples, rooted in a false and narrow equating of aesthetics and geometry. I still remember fleeing the oblong horrors of Agrigentum to seek the truth of Pirandello's house in nearby Chaos.

How then can we free ourselves from the tyranny of Greek art? We can do so by sending the Elgin Marbles to Persepolis where they belong. It would rid us of both a fetish and a conflict. It would at one blow destroy the central position that Greek art holds in our thinking. It would shut up for ever the pestering Greek nationalists, the fawning British leftists and the insidious wealthy Greeks who have tried to suborn our intellectuals with their patronage. The Greeks know that the Iranians would never sell or surrender the Elgin Marbles to them because the men of Iran lack the liberal feebleness that has rotted Britain. Boldly to give the Elgin Marbles to Iran today is to prevent their being surrendered to an ignoble Greek chauvinism tomorrow.

The purpose of art is to create breadth of thinking. In Greece the Elgin Marbles would do even more damage than they have done in Britain; they would reinforce a narrow artistic cult propped up by an unjustified sense of Greek national superiority over other peoples. There is no danger of this in modern Iran, whose greatest artistic achievement since the beginning of the Islamic period have been the great mosques of Isfahan. There you can sit in silence and look up at the swirling patterns of a dome until you are part of them. You are undisturbed by the icons and idols and graven images that deface the dark, soot-stained, screen-divided Eastern churches.

To place the representational figures of the Elgin Marbles in Isfahan would be impossible; it would outrage the faithful. Yet even after the Islamic revolution the Iranians have cherished Persepolis. Persepolis is part of an impious multi-faith past, but it is also a reminder of the time when Persia was a super power to be feared. The Elgin Marbles belong in that past. The Parthenon in Athens, begun in 449 BC, is an insult to the Persians, a celebration of the Greeks' petty victories over the Persian expeditions thirty years before. Represented on it there is even a battle between the Greeks and a tribe of female warriors in Persian clothing, the most offensive gibe you could ever make against a Persian.

To bring the Elgin Marbles to Persepolis would be to capture and thus nullify the insult. It would also be a fitting revenge and compensation for Alexander's destruction of Darius's palace and a reminder to the world that just over a century later the Greeks were gone from Persia forever. The Romans were in time to overrun Greece and Macedonia with ease, but three Roman emperors were slain close to the frontiers of Persia by the Parthians. Byzantium could do no better. Sending the Elgin marbles to Persepolis would signify our abandonment of the anti-Persian view of history peddled by the Greeks.

Placed alongside the existing treasures of Persepolis the Elgin Marbles would broaden the Persians' perception of artistic tradition. Aesthetically we always learn best from contemplating that which is both related to us and yet opposed to us; such would be the status of the Elgin Marbles in Persepolis. What for us, and even more for the Greeks, has been a source of bondage would become a source of wonder.

It should, of course, be a free gift to Iran for which we, the British, would expect nothing in return. Our reward would lie in the assertion of our power to dispose freely of that which is our own.

The great hall in the British Museum set free by the departure of the things of Elgin, could now be used to provide space for the exhibitions that will follow The Forgotten Empire. There are many fine things in the current exhibition, many drawn from the British Museum's own Oxus Treasure, notably a flat gold figure of a trousered Mede, but the smaller items are often difficult to see. I wish I had taken a magnifying glass but I would probably have been told off for trying to use it. More space, more light, more lenses are needed.

When I visited the exhibition, I also took time to look at another British Museum exhibition, Painting Toward the Light of watercolours by the Canadian artist David Milne (ended 25th September 2005). His 1919 war-artist's painting of a sad dead tank at Cambrai said more than all the horses of Elgin put together.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Modern Britain, Transaction 2004. His treatise on the science of imaginary animals and the work of the archaeologist Friedrich Haber will be published by Dinas later this year.


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"Why the Elgin Marbles should go to Iran"

They should stay in the BM. But, failing that, I'm all in favour of the mad mullahs' having them. That'd serve the Greeks right for whining.

Posted by: Bryan at October 11, 2005 05:13 PM
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Were we to return the Elgin Marbles, oughtn't they be given back to those whom we bought them from, the Turks? I do, however, enjoy Prof Davies' approach.

Posted by: s masty at October 11, 2005 08:14 PM
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Could we drop them on their nuclear facillities?

Posted by: Mike Baldwin at October 12, 2005 07:40 AM
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Now I am confused, Prof. Christie Davies previously argues - on these very pages - that the Elgin marbles should go to Tennessee
Link: The Elgin Marbles are going to Tennessee.

Now the Elgin marbles should go off to Iran. Which is it to be, Prof. Davies?

Posted by: Jane at October 12, 2005 06:23 PM
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I rather prefer the idea of the Marbles going to Iran than Tennessee. It is an altogether classier suggestion. Prof. Davies clearly has a thing about the Elgin marbles. A quick google search shows that Christie Davies first published a piece called "The Elgin Marbles are going to Tennessee" in 1992 in something called "The Archaelogical Review from Cambridge".

Posted by: Jon at October 12, 2005 07:04 PM
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On this site Prof. Christie Davies and Prof. William D. Rubinstein seem to divide between them the task of making ridiculous arguments. There is however a difference. Prof. Davies - when he is making far fetched arguments - seems to be doing them in jes, or at least one suspects/hopes so. Prof. Rubinstein however comes out with nonsense above and beyond the call of duty - Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare's plays, evolution is a myth - for real. Give me a Prof. Davies over a Prof. Rubinstein any day of the week.

Posted by: David Smith at October 12, 2005 07:09 PM
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I was at first glad to read this article, because I’m glad to see someone putting in a word for the Persians, who have had such a bad press in recent years, since getting a bad attack of the mullahs. To this I would like to add another of their treasures, namely their language, both in its ancient form (Avesta) which probably delighted Tolkien, and also the modern form which still shows its ancestral relationship to English and Irish.

But on further reading, I am shocked at the logic of the main argument. I’ll transfer it to a school situation, first treating a simpler, two-party case. Nice Johnny takes Nasty Tom’s pencil. The teacher knows this is wrong, but because Johnny is such a nice boy, and Tom is so much trouble, he allows Johnny to keep it. This will not only embitter Tom, and harden him against any teaching about justice, but it will also start to corrupt Johnny.

Here, however, in this three–party case, the pencil has been taken by Bold Bad Bill. The teacher decides to take it from Bill, but give it to the nice boy instead of its rightful owner. What a moral mare’s nest!

Whatever the relative merits of the two cultures, we westerners owe a lot to both the Greeks and the Iranians. If Leonidas and his men had not held up the Persian army, maybe today we would not even be recognizable Europeans. On the other hand, if Cyrus the Great had not allowed the Jews to return, we would have had no Einstein, and in more recent times, when the Terrible Turk was at the gates of Vienna, ready to overrun Europe, he was unable to throw his full weight into the battle because the then Shah of Iran kept forcing him to watch his back.

To end on a lighter note, let us remember that in 334 BC, the Romans had not started the process of eliminating Celtic culture from all but the westernmost parts of Europe. We know how the Welsh archers beat the stuffing out of the French at Crécy and Agincourt. Perhaps if Darius III had sent for and taken on some Celtic archers, they might have turned Alexander into a good imitation of a porcupine. Then history would have been very different.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 12, 2005 11:10 PM
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I think your beloved professor Davies is racist. What? Did he get a bad piece of mousaka at a greek restaurant or something? If not, he must've been dropped on his head one too many times as a child. To send the marbles to Iran would be their destruction. As an Islamic state, Iran is a country that strictly follows Islamic principals. It is against Islam to recreate anything in the likeness of man, ie the Elgin Marbles. This was part of the reason that Elgin removed the marbles from the barbarous clutches of the Ottoman empire. Who threatened to blow up ancient monuments so that the oppressed Greeks would be forced to surrender in battle. Maybe it would be wise for you to take a course in modern greek history proffessor Davies. Or at least get over the fact that Alexander the great defeated the Persians. As for the rest of the people who posted bitchy messages pondering history's what ifs, history is history. Too bad for the losers. Furthermore, modern macedonians are not the macedonians of Alexander's time. They are slavs who wanted a reason to separate from Yugoslavia. They noticed the name of the greek province to the south of them (where Philip II's remains were found) and copied it. Their language is nothing of Alexander's, who considered himself a greek. Now to the matter of the Elgin Marbles. Where were they created? Greece. Where were they stolen from? Greece. Where do they belong? Greece. The British Museum is afraid that if they return the marbles to greece, other countries or holocost victims who were robbed will demand the return of their artefacts. Then the museum will be near empty. Hmm Why can't it house british artefacts? Is Britain void of its own cultural objects? I don't know. But this article is biased. Brits bitching how they don't want to give back what they stole. But its ok, the rest of the world knows you're all barbarians.

Posted by: Irene Klara at October 15, 2005 08:10 PM
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The mullahs would like to deep-six Persepolis as part of the ugly, unenlightened pre-Islamic past. The Elgin marbles would eventually receive the same treatment as the big Buddhas in Afhanistan. The mullahs might mount them in a special museum built to disguise and protect their atom bomb plant, but the bijous probably wouldn’t last long that way, either. Tennessee for me.

Posted by: anonymous coward at October 17, 2005 05:22 AM
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Dear Irene,

Firstly, let me thank you for putting a reasonable case for Lord Elgin. We so often hear of him simply as a ruthless greedy adventurer seeking to acquire the Marbles for his own glory. The idea that he might be rescuing them from the Turks is new to me.

I do not think Prof. Davies is a racist. His perception of the Greeks is bound to be very different from mine, because he is a sociologist and I am a physical chemist. Whereas the case for the return of the Marbles to Athens is quite strong, the Greeks always express it with a hatred which has been stirred up again and again by scurrilous politicians, aided by those in this country who like to air everybody else’s grievances, so boosting their own sense of moral good chappiness or self-righteousness. The professor, working with students in a discipline with strong political overtones, is bound to have come across this again and again, till he was sick to the back teeth. The Greeks, however, are far from being the worst in this regard. Other nations have such hatreds, which even after lying dormant for generations can be stirred up again by scoundrels on the political make. These things remind me of Kakabekia, an ammonia-powered organism believed to have been extinct for over 2 billion years, but discovered alive in 1968 (in the urinal, so it is said) at Harlech Castle.

On the contrary, the Greeks I have encountered have been mainly scientists, and I have a very good impression of them. The Greeks alone invented science, and their philosophers developed the linguistic tools which we have further developed and use in Europe today. The Romans had to translate many words from the Greek in order to do their own thinking, and the Germanic and Slavonic languages have all carried this over, usually by translation, from Greek or Latin.

However, powerful tools of thought can be misapplied, and the conflation of science and mathematics with mysticism and philosophy eventually brought science to a halt in Europe. Forget Berthold Brecht’s Galileo: it was to free physics from Aristotelian philosophical hangovers that Galileo wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632 , but he got into trouble by lampooning Pope Urban VIII therein.

However, Alexander is a different kettle of fish. I’m sure, though, if he had been doing a Bush-Blair job at the time, I would have sided with him, for one reason. The Persians had taken over from the Mesopotamian civilization they conquered the detestable practice of castrating young male captives, which the Macedonians found repellent and so do I. It is indeed the great smotyn du on the Ancient Persian civilization, and may have helped their downfall, what with all those eunuchs with nothing to do but multiply political intrigue. So the fact that Alexander was driven by a festering family hatred dating back 150 years would have been overlooked by me. Subsequently further nastiness emerged: his ruthless killing of prisoners, his reckless leading of his own men through a desert where many of them perished rather than retrace his steps, his self-glorification in founding about 20 Alexandrias, etc, etc.

The “what-if” at the end was not supposed to be bitchy, just a little joke. But even though Alexander won, there is no reason why we today should shower him with admiration.


Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 17, 2005 07:14 PM
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"The Greeks cannot even take credit for Alexander's conquests. When the Macedonians first became powerful, the Greek city states went grovelling to the rulers of Persia to ask for help to defend themselves against the new Balkan power to their north, the ancestor of today's Macedonian Republic."

LOL today's Macedonians are the ancestor's of the ancient Macedonians?

I think Professor Davies needs to read a history book on the Republic of Macedonia...what a ridiculous statement that is coming from a professor.

All credibility has been thrown out the window with stupidity like that. Obviously this sad excuse for a professor has a hidden agenda

Posted by: Sonny at November 19, 2007 01:01 PM
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