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December 14, 2005

Visitations of the Sun-God - Forgotten Empire: the world of ancient Persia at the British Museum

Posted by Roger Homan

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 city of the ancient Persians that the Greeks called Persepolis is locally known as Takht-e Jamshid, the throne of the legendary king Jamshid to whom we are said to owe the discovery of wine. It endured for only two centuries before being sacked by Alexander the Great. It was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1930s. It had evidently been a national shrine for the celebration of the Spring festival Narvus: its distinction is acknowledged for the magnitude of its scale and the profundity of its meaning.

Persepolis lies in Fars province forty miles from Shiraz. A while ago, when ancient Persia was rather less ancient than it is now, my companion and I hitched a lift in a truck and had the place almost to ourselves. The scale, nobility and refinement of the Throne of Jamshid are the more remarkable because the site is so remote. Needless to say, one does not enjoy either the triumph of arrival or the same measure of solitude when visiting its treasures in the British Museum exhibition Forgotten Empire: the world of ancient Persia. In situ, its wonder is in being a palace in a desert and as a Zoroastrian temple in an Islamic state. Its unfashionable religious foundation notwithstanding, Persepolis is owned in Iran as an ancient and valued world heritage site.

In the intellectual sense, of course, the mission of the exhibition is to set Persepolis in an historical context as the centre of the great Persian empire. The Greek victories celebrated by Herodotus were no more than little local difficulties in the perception of the Persian King of kings. From this vast empire were brought tributes from the very peoples who were later recorded to have attended another international gathering on the day of Pentecost: Persians, Medes, Elamites, Greeks, Babylonians. They are to be found in procession on the shallow relief wall panels. They are in uniformed groups, distinguished by their beehive hats or curly hair or by the treasures they bear.

The intended message of the current exhibition is consistent with the reading of the guidebook I brought back with me thirty years ago. Persepolis was a great imperial centre. The power of Darius and Xerxes was attested on the walls by the diversity of those who journeyed to pay tribute. The exhibition adds a compelling insight of the multilingual community. In the very modern way, the ancient texts were inscribed in three languages. The secular eye looks upon the gifts they bear and supposes them to be taxes or tributes to the royal court.

So it is to put Persepolis in "its context". In the physical sense, however, never was art or religion more decontextualized than when it arrived in a London gallery from the deserted hillside into which Persepolis had been cut. The effect of dislocation is to submit the trappings of Zoroastrian religion to the interpretive methods of an alien intellectual world that is more mindful of power and politics than of the severity of the elements and the perceived need to placate their gods. So the shrine of the sun-god Ahura Mazda is removed from its exposed setting and represented by fragments of its art under glass and in darkened rooms. When visiting it in the heat of the noonday sun, with no shade afforded by the solitary surviving columns, I recall being more aware of solar than of political power. So too, I sense, were those who had come here in processions twenty-five centuries earlier.

Visitors to the BM come in comfort, having lost the ancient sense of vulnerability, with natural light excluded and with their observations mediated by the informative commentary of experts in a distant culture. For we know that Persepolis was a national shrine for the celebration of the Spring festival Narvus. This is a solemn procession. In our preoccupation with the political dimension we are likely to disregard the religious basis of this international convention and the place of the god Ahura Mazda. He it was who enabled and licensed Darius and Xerxes. The wall of the gateway bears an inscription that is typical of others found beneath the floor of the Apadana or audience hall:

A great god is Ahura Mazda, who created this earth, who created yonder sky, who created man, who created happiness for man, who made Darius king, one king of many and lord of many. I am Xerxes the Great King, King of Kings, King of countries containing all kinds of men, King of this great earth far and wide… By the favour of Ahura Mazda I built this colonnade of all lands. Whatever good construction is seen, all that by the favour of Ahura Mazda we built.
Then when we look at the friezes and inspect the processions from the far parts of the kingdom, we do not find servants bowed in subjection; there is no obeisance, no subordination. These images are reverently drawn and convey the dignity of all peoples. Persepolis celebrates the beauty of all nations, not their subservience. It is a sacrificial procession ordered in a recognizably religious manner.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).

To read Christie Davies take on this exhibition see, 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.


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I have seen this fine exhibition three times now and remain amused by the reactions of the other visitors. The gringos inevitably come to the portrait bust of Alexander at the end, and gawp in gobsmacked admiration of the white, European adventurer whilst the Persians shudder at a gangster who built so little and destroyed so much. To some extent, of course, people never choose to dwell on the nightmares of othes. But one could hardly blame the Persians for looking at us marvel over the equivalent of a Greek motorcycle gang, and wonder how thin is the veneer of Western civilisation.

Posted by: s j masty at December 14, 2005 02:44 PM
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