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The Persian Difference

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

Catalog of the exhibition edited by John Curtis and Nigel Tallis
an exhibition at the British Museum, September 9, 2005–January 8, 2006.
University of California Press,272 pp., $49.95


Tony Blair said recently that the Islamic Republic may pose a “threat to our world security”; he also mused that he might one day be called upon to “do something” about Iran. Other Western leaders have criticized Iran’s development of an ambiguous nuclear program, its influence in Iraq, and its venomous language toward Israel, and concluded that the Iranians have ambitions outside their borders.1

If Blair and others are right, and Iran has expansionist intentions, this would be a fascinating change. Since 1600, the Iranians (or Persians, as the Europeans knew them) have been largely confined to the same plateau, located between several mountain ranges, the Persian Gulf, and the Caspian Sea, that they occupy today. As nationalist ideas arrived from Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Persians proved to be the best prepared of all Middle Eastern peoples to build a nation-state on the Western model, and among the least likely to invade their neighbors.

Now, despite periodic displays of unhappiness by Iran’s Kurdish and Arab minorities, there is a strong belief among many modern Iranians that they, as Persian-speaking Shia Muslims of Indo-European descent, have a unique identity. (Iran’s biggest minority, the Azeri Turks, are better integrated into mainstream society than the Arabs and Kurds.) Since the Muslim Arab conquest of the mid-seventh century, Iran has been repeatedly invaded. To a striking degree, the Persians’ cultural identity helped them to avoid being assimilated by successive occupiers, but it also restricted their ability to expand their own political orbit to include neighbors who do not share the same identity.

The last time that Iran was a world power was when it was ruled by the monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty, who came to prominence at the beginning of the third century AD. They installed Zoroastrianism as the state religion, and were overthrown in the seventh century by the Arabs. In important ways, the Sassanids were successors to the greatest Iranian empire of all, the Achaemenid empire, which stretched, at its peak around 500 BC, from the Indus to North Africa. The Achaemenids’ administration was both multicultural and multilingual; its provincial governors, called satraps, tended to promote religious diversity. In fact, it is hard to see much common ground between the sprawling Achaemenid empire and the centralized, doctrinaire state of Iran in this or the last century, either before or after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The closest that the Islamic Republic has come to empire-building has been in its efforts to export its revolution to other Muslim countries in the 1980s, and these have failed badly. Not surprisingly, the revolutionaries found it hard to sell a political philosophy that is based on Shia exclusiveness and informed, despite Iran’s claims to be advocating supranational ideas, by Persian chauvinism.

One of the strengths of Neil MacGregor, the well-regarded director of the British Museum, is his interest in exploring ideas of continuity and change. He has said that an “Enlightenment institution” such as the British Museum should aim to change the way that people think about society, and examining the relationship between the past and the present seems to be a part of this.2 At the same time, he is not afraid of political controversy. His support for Donny George, the head of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, helped George to fend off American insinuations that he had been involved in the looting of the museum that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.3 Early this year, John Curtis, the head of the British Museum’s Ancient Near East Department, said that US forces in Iraq had caused “substantial damage” to the remains of ancient Babylon. In 2004, the museum staged a provocative debate on how ancient Mesopotamian civilizations and Saddam Hussein’s claims to be their spiritual heir were relevant to Iraq’s current attempts to create a national identity.

In conceiving the museum’s current exhibition, Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, MacGregor and John Curtis, the show’s main curator, and co-editor of its very good catalog, seem to have set themselves two main goals. The first is to answer the Greek chroniclers of the Greco-Persian wars whose accounts created what MacGregor calls “those stereotypes of the freedom-loving, tough European versus the servile, luxurious, effeminate, despotic Asian.” The second is to draw attention to the link between ancient Persia and modern Iran—in other words, to remind people that Iran’s Islamic theocracy, which is now accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons, is descended from a great pre-Islamic civilization. In its desire to encourage an urgent contemporary debate, the museum has simplified some complex arguments and historical experience. Nonetheless, Forgotten Empire is an important event that deserves to be remembered.


Cyrus the Great was the scion of an Iranian dynasty that was related to, and dominated by, the Medes, an Aryan people whose empire, based in what is now western Iran, flourished in the sixth century BC. Shortly after he came to power in 557 BC, Cyrus organized a revolt against his Median overlords. Within two decades, he had conquered not only the Median kingdom but also all of Asia Minor and Babylonia, and much of the eastern Mediterranean coast. Cyrus is remembered in the Bible for encouraging the Babylonian Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple of Yahweh. He is thought to have died in 530 BC, around the time of a campaign against Bactria, part of modern Afghanistan. Cambyses, his son and heir, continued the expansion of Iran into Egypt, but it was during the long and splendid reign of Darius I (522–486 BC) that the empire grew to its fullest extent, incorporating the western coast of the Euxine (Black) Sea. Darius’ empire was the biggest the world had yet known. He left behind superb monuments, notably his palace complexes at Persepolis and Susa.

The wars between Greece and Persia lasted between 499 BC, while Darius was still king, and 479 BC, seven years after the accession of his son Xerxes. These wars, and the Greeks’ famous victories at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, did much to form the emerging Greek national identity. The interest shown in the wars by Greek writers, and the absence (so far as is known) of a written literary tradition in Achaemenid Persia, have produced a historiographic oddity. Most of the information that we have on the history and mores of the Achaemenids was written by their intermittent subjects and foes, the Greeks. This history, moreover, is often appended to accounts of the Greco-Persian wars—hooked, as it were, to a mere twenty years of the empire’s life, and to military convulsions far from its center. Taken on its own, the Greek version of events can skew perceptions. One effect, as Neil MacGregor lamented, is that “people still have it in their heads that [the Achaemenids] are the people that the Greeks defeated. It is like thinking of the British Empire as those people whom the Boers defeated.”

The stereotyping to which MacGregor has referred is evident in thesalacious Persica, a notoriously inaccurate book of history by Ctesias, the Greek doctor of Artaxerxes II (404–359 BC). Following the defeats of the Achaemenids, there was a hubristic vogue in Greek art for scornful portrayals of Persians. Aeschylus’ The Persians, a triumphalist stage account of the Persian court’s reaction to a military defeat by the Greeks, portrays the Persian elders as weak and indecisive, and the defeated King Xerxes as reckless and arrogant, but neither as monsters. In fact, some Greek writers strongly praised the Persians. Rather than advocate Greek-style democracy, Xenophon, in the Cyropaedia, his hagiographic account of Cyrus the Great, writes admiringly of the Great King’s benevolent despotism.

Above all, we are lucky that the judgments of Herodotus, the most important Greek chronicler of the Persian empire, are far from being uniformly or reflexively negative. There is surely more to Herodotus’ Histories than the promotion of a “negative yet still dangerous image of the Persians,” as the museum’s exhibition catalog puts it. Although he is biased, as one would expect, and strongly dislikes Cyrus’ heir Cambyses, Herodotus finds much in the Persians to praise, including their aversion to lying and their prohibition of capital punishment for a single crime. The London show does not make the point that Greek portrayals of the Persians are more varied than many people think.

In the Histories, Herodotus comments on the readiness of Persians to adopt foreign customs. It is not surprising that the Achaemenids’ administrative and artistic culture was diverse and eclectic, in view of the vastness of their territories and the fact that many of the societies under their control were advanced and worthy of emulation. The Achaemenids did not build a new civilization in the way that the Sumerians and Egyptians had; they adapted and refined the civilizations that they found.

Nor did they impose their languages on their subjects. Old Persian, the antecedent of the language that is spoken by modern Iranians, was the least used of the empire’s three official languages, the other two being two non-Iranian tongues, Elamite and Akkadian, a Semitic language. (Aramaic was the lingua franca for communication between the satrapies.) From the Medes, the Persians borrowed institutional and ceremonial traditions. From the Egyptians, Cambyses took the title of pharaoh; his soldiers adopted Egyptian breastplates. “From the Greeks,” writes Herodotus, “they…learned to lie with boys.”

The Achaemenids fostered a hybrid art. Their vast columned audience halls—called apadanas—were conceived by Persians, but these and other buildings were constructed by artisans from throughout the empire. To build Darius I’s palace at Susa, the Great King employed Ionian and Sardian stonemasons and Median and Egyptian goldsmiths. Babylonians made fine reliefs using glazed bricks. (There are two in the British Museum exhibition, one of which is shown on this page.) Looking at the colossal human-headed bulls at Persepolis, one is reminded of the winged bulls that the Assyrians, whose empire had long been swept away, used to support entrance arches.

It was in the Achaemenids’ interest to be religiously tolerant; it would have been foolhardy to try to impose a single set of beliefs and practices on so huge an empire. There is still debate over what the Achaemenid kings believed. In the Cyrus Cylinder, a propaganda inscription that was found in Babylon and is held by the British Museum, Cyrus the Great claims to his Babylonian subjects that Marduk, the city-god of Babylon, chose him to occupy the city. The biblical book of Isaiah says that Cyrus was “anointed” by Yahweh to let the Babylonian Jews rebuild the Temple. Cambyses, Cyrus’ successor and the conqueror of Egypt, favored Egyptian cults. Despite the later Achaemenids’ veneration of Ahuramazda, the Wise Lord of the Zoroastrians, many scholars do not believe that they fully accepted Zoroaster’s teachings. In the Persian heartland, Iranian and Elamite gods were worshiped side by side. Herodotus writes that the Persians offered sacrifices to Zeus.

  1. 1

    Blair was responding to a speech by Iran’s conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on October 26, in which he described Israel as a “disgraceful blot” that deserves to be “wiped off the map.” In Iran, embarrassed officials explained that Iran has no intention of attacking Israel. But the diplomatic damage was considerable; the President was widely condemned, Kofi Annan canceled a trip to Tehran, and Iran’s efforts to avoid referral to the United Nations Security Council for refusing to abandon its plans to produce nuclear fuel suffered a setback.

  2. 2

    See Peter Aspden, “Enlightened Empire,” in the Financial Times‘s weekend magazine, September 3–4, 2005.

  3. 3

    See my article on the looting of the Iraq National Museum, “Loot,” Granta 83, Fall 2003.

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