In 499B.C, a slave set forth from Persia on a most secret and arduous journey. Having emerged in stealth and secret from the majesty of the Persian palace in the city of Susa, the slave made his way under the cover of night toward the Persian-controlled Greek colonies on the Ionian coast. The journey, if discovered, would have not only spelt death and ruin for the slave and his master, but would have radically altered the course of history. For tattooed on the head of this slave was a message written months previously, it came from inside of the Persian court, and ordered Greek cities of the Ionian coast to rise, to revolt and to overthrow their Persian overlords. The mission was accomplished, and the revolt began. Henceforth starts the most celebrated period of classical history, the struggle for supremacy between the Greek cities and the Persian Empire, known today as the Persian wars.
Yet for all the exhaustive knowledge we have of the contemporary Greek civilization and of their wars with the Persians, the Achaemenid Persian Empire of 550 – 330 BC still remains as somewhat of a mystery to many and for those more versed in classical literature, it resides within their imagination in a state of perpetual infamy. Much of what we know of the Persian wars and the Persian Empire, of the splendour of their courts, the deviousness of their intricacies, the complexity of their plots and all about their battles and betrayals comes to us from the Histories of Herodotus. Written in 440 BC, the Histories hold pride of place in western literature as being the first histories written in Europe and are undoubtedly of the most oft-read and influential pieces of literature produced in the west.
However, Herodotus of Halicarnassus was a Greek, and for him the Persian wars were far more significant than a mere series of battles fought between two warring nations. For Herodotus, the wars were actual realisations of the eternal struggle between civilization against barbarism, freedom against oppression, courage against cowardice and of morality against decadence; it was the prototypical struggle of good against evil.
For the Persian wars, an alternative history cannot be provided as simply speaking the Persian equivalent of the Histories does not exist. Yet in the British Museum, a remarkable new exhibition has opened in an attempt to force archaeology against Herodotus by turning history upon its head. Entitled the Forgotten Empire, Neil Macgregor and John Curtis have undertaken a remarkable feat in bringing together some of the most fascinating exhibits of the ancient world under one roof to tell the story of Persia from the Persian side, a story so often drowned out in the voice of the narrators of Thermopylae and Marathon.
This is an exhibition that attempts to tell the story of a vast empire at the height of its glory, an Empire who from the classical times till today has had its image tarnished and denigrated by the advocators of ‘western civilization’ against ‘eastern barbarism’. Who else are the quintessential ‘Oriental Despots’ if not the Kings of Persia? In an age where the timeless and inevitable ‘clash of civilizations’ is advocated by many, the Museum must be lauded for placing over two years of effort in presenting a picture of a historical epoch from ‘the other side’.
Hence it begins. The imposing and magnificent palace doorway that greets the visitor is a deftly placed recreation that gives us a glimpse of the vastness of the Empire. Stretching from the Indus to the Nile, the Empire ruled and administered over 7,500,000sq km of land that comprised a total land-mass that exceeds even that of Rome. We are greeted with the eternal gaze of Armenians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Phoenicians and Scythians who, now crafted in stone, stand arms raised up high in support of the throne of the ‘king of kings’.
Though rather smaller than other exhibitions that have graced London of late, such as that of the Turks in the Royal Academy, the exhibition is a perfect example of how nimbleness in design can magnify the experience of the visitor. From the onset, the designers have worked together remarkably well to create an outstanding atmosphere of intensity in feeling and fluidity in motion. Following the magnificent entrance, we are presented with an introduction to the Empire itself and most importantly given a feeling as to its scale with the staging of a tri-lingual inscription of the Persian King Xerxes. Upon seeing the inscription one cannot help but instinctively feel that an empire which released all official inscriptions in 3 distinct languages (Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite) is an Empire where vastness comes as second nature.
This feeling of immensity is encapsulated in the ‘Palace of Kings’ exhibit where the floor is devoted to two substantial friezes depicting the role of the nations under the power of the King. The entrance to the ‘Apadana’ (columned halls) has been faithfully recreated, with sculptures of Ionians, Lydians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Scythians, Armenians all bearing gifts in tribute and homage to the Persian King. In an era of inter-national and inter-ethnic rivalry, especially within the Middle-East, a remarkable picture of cooperation amongst the races is presented throughout the totality of the exhibition. The exhibit faithfully describes how much of the greatness of the Empire arose as a result of integration between all the different peoples working together under the aegis of the King. The remarkable wooden beams and glassed friezes that we find would not have been possible had the Persians not relied on the expertise of Egyptian goldsmiths and Babylonian bricklayers.
The exhibition has clearly demarcated different facets of life in the Persian realms, areas entitled ‘control of empire, the royal table, luxury in life and death’ all culminate in presenting the visitor of a fuller understanding of not only the luxury and wealth of the empire, but of its organizational structures and military pre-eminence.
In concluding the exhibition, the organisers have shown a deft awareness of contemporary discourse with their final exhibit. Entitled ‘the Cyrus cylinder’, we are presented with a remarkable artefact found in Babylon dated in 539 BC. It tells us of Cyrus, the legendary King of the Persians, who upon conquering Babylon restored the religious rights and freedoms of its inhabitants and allowed the right of return for all those exiled from their homes. The cylinder is testimony to the era of stability and acceptance he established through his insistence on toleration, an era which even the Book of Ezra in the Old Testament describes as being one of a “just and peaceful rule”. The rule of this ‘model-king’ is not one that can be replicated today, but proves a pertinent example of the relation between advancement, stability and toleration.
Through unprecedented cooperation between themselves and the National Museums of Iran, the opening of the exhibition is a noteworthy accomplishment in the annals of the history of the British Museum. The accompanying audio guide provides a substantial narrative to coincide with the exhibition, and is highly recommended as much would be lost without it. The 3D visual-model of Persepolis, the great capital of the Empire, merges modern technological advancements with archaeological knowledge in an incredible achievement that left many viewers quite amazed at the site and scale of the capital.
Newer generations seem to know less and less of the Persian Empire as the appreciation of Classics declines from the popular psyche, hence the title of the exhibition. Yet the worth of this exposition is not in simply remembering the extent and legacy of the Empire, but rather a contribution to the dialogue and discourse of those who reject belief in the notions of luxuria asiatica, the conviction in an intrinsic decadence and immorality inherent only to the eastern world that can only be beaten through the adoption of western models. The debate is still open on whether or not Herodotus was the first Orientalist, yet what cannot be doubted however is the value such an exhibition will hold in the broadening of thought and opinion for the visitor in general.
The Forgotten Empire: the world of Ancient Persia exhibition will be displayed till the 8th January 2006 at the British Museum