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.

John Curtis’s exhibition, hindered by its cramped space, nevertheless conveys well the hybrid character of Persian art and history. It is disappointing to discover that some major pieces, such as a fine Egyptian statue of Darius that is adorned with hieroglyphs and representations of the Nile goddess Hapi, are plaster casts, and it is annoying, owing to the narrow space available, that an important relief (also a cast) of a lion biting into the hindquarters of a bull, from Persepolis, cannot be seen from a distance of more than a few feet.

Still, one can imagine the awe that visitors to Persepolis and Susa must have felt on approaching the royal complexes, and as one wanders through the architectural fragments on display, the scale and splendor of the Achaemenid buildings can seem wanton and overwhelming. It is unnerving to think that a massive stone lion’s paw on the gallery floor was only a small part of a column capital more than fifty feet from the ground (see the illustration on page 20). (One wonders, too, at the destructive energy that Alexander the Great must have spent to lay waste to Persepolis—he committed this act of vandalism in 330 BC, by which time he was in control of most of the Achaemenids’ possessions.) The show contains an evocative sculpture, in polished black limestone, of a seated mastiff, a superb physical specimen with a leonine snout and paws. Its expression conveys vigilance, calm, and utter obedience to the Great King.

Amid these suggestions of opulence and imperial control, it is pleasing to look at a tiny and exquisite statue made from lapis lazuli of a young man with a crown, which was found at Persepolis, although we don’t know over what, if anywhere, he ruled. The exhibition expertly illustrates the religious cross-fertilization of the empire; a small gold sculpture of two figures in a horse-drawn chariot is adorned with the head of Bes, an Egyptian god who may have had a protective function; the piece was found in central Asia, thousands of miles from Bes’s spiritual birthplace. Coins from the Aegean coast show Baal, a fertility deity, on one side, and what is generally thought to be the Zoroastrian Wise Lord Ahuramazda on the other; the Wise Lord has been stripped to the waist, presumably to make him attractive to the body-conscious Greeks. To illustrate trading links between East and West, the curators have included a relief that comes from Lycia, on Asia Minor’s Aegean coast. The frieze depicts a Lycian ruler surrounded by pages and reclining on a couch, under which his dog patiently lies. The king is drinking from a Persian vessel.

The tolerance for cultural difference on display in the exhibition suggests that the empire was not unduly repressive. But the show does not challenge the view, first expressed by Herodotus and propagated later by other Greek historians and tragedians, that the Greco-Persian wars were waged between a single Greek people fired by a heroic sense of national identity and a faceless Persian confederation united only by the promise of material rewards.4

From this exaggerated perspective, it is a short step to the disparaging tone used by some reviewers of the show when describing the ancient Persians. In a commentary that got much attention, Jonathan Jones of the London Guardian suggested that the Persian empire was “grandiose, luxurious and remotely despotic” and that the Persians themselves were “a void at the heart of the exhibition.” Rather than appreciate the museum’s plaster cast of a relief showing foreign delegations bringing presents to the king, which he found “static,” Jones advised his readers to visit the Elgin Marbles, which are displayed in a nearby gallery. “The Greek masterpiece is full of motion and emotion,” Jones wrote, “from horses barely reined in, to a heifer being led to sacrifice.”

Jones is not the first to denigrate Achaemenid art. It is worth recalling the views of Robert Byron, the gifted and opinionated aesthete who visited Persepolis while it was being excavated in 1934, and recorded his impressions in his classic travel book Road to Oxiana. Byron objected to Persepolis’ “cross-bred sophistication.” He found its famous columns, “like mules,” to be “infertile…they have no bearing on the general course of architecture, and hold no precepts for it.” Of the reliefs, Byron wrote,

They are not mechanical figures; nor are they guilty of elaboration for its own sake; nor are they cheap in the sense of lacking technical skill. But they are what the French call faux bons. They have art, but not spontaneous art, and certainly not great art. Instead of mind and feeling, they exhale a soulless refinement.

Byron, too, refers his readers to the British Museum—though not, significantly, to the Greek galleries. In contrast to Jones, who seems to regret that the Achaemenids were not more like the Greeks, Byron hates Persepolis because it shows that the Persian “artistic instinct has been fettered and devitalized by contact with the Mediterranean. To see what this instinct really was, and how it differs from this, one can look at the Assyrian reliefs at the British Museum.”

No one would deny that the Persepolis reliefs on show at the British Museum—including an original relief fragment showing “Susian guards,” and the members of tribute delegations—are very different from the Assyrians’ pulsating narratives of battles and hunts and the Parthenon’s intimate stories. With few exceptions, the Persepolis friezes repeat archetypical profiles, often of a soldier; one can search in vain for variations in pose, or for emotion on the identical faces. Although flawlessly executed, the processions do not have the visual charm of the Lycian frieze with its varied poses and its parabola of outstretched pages’ arms. There is no attempt to show the Great King’s affection for animals, or to describe him at leisure.

These friezes have a different function. They were architectural elements in the sense that they were part of an arrangement of long staircases and terraces by which one reached the apadana and the palaces (see the illustration on page 16). For the visitor, mounting broad flights of stairs on his way to an audience or assembly, the reliefs on either side must have been mesmerizing, and also unsettling—giving a sense of being honored and taken into custody at the same time. The friezes were designed to intimidate, not to seduce, or to tell a story, or to show that the Great King was a good fellow who liked a drink. Judged on their own terms, they are an artistic triumph.


On September 22, the Guardian published a commentary by Shahrokh Razmjou, who heads the Center for Achaemenid Studies at the National Museum of Iran, in which he described Jones’s review of the London show as “propagandist.” Other Iranians were also upset about Jones’s article. In a contribution to an Internet forum that circulates views on Iranian studies, an Iranian living in Britain wrote, “Everything I believe in is represented upside down in this article and, I should confess, it’s very heartbreaking.” It is worth asking why an arcane argument about the distant past aroused such emotions, especially since awareness of the Achaemenids’ achievements is relatively recent.

During the Sassanid period, between the third and early seventh centuries AD, the Achaemenid empire slipped from the national consciousness. An official history written in the sixth century AD ignores the Achaemenid kings. The ruins of Persepolis came to be known as the Throne of Jamshid, a legendary king. (Most Iranians still call it that today.) After the Iranians were converted to Islam in the seventh century, many came to believe that Cyrus’ tomb near Persepolis was the tomb of Solomon, or Solomon’s mother, and it was used as a mosque. Inspired by Solomon, or Jamshid, or both, Islamic rulers commissioned pious inscriptions at Persepolis. In 1617, Persepolis was identified as the ancient Achaemenid capital by a European traveler; two centuries elapsed before booty-hunters moved in. Many of the original frieze fragments that are on show at the British Museum were “acquired” during two British foraging expeditions at Persepolis in 1811. (In those days Europeans turned up without bothering to ask anyone for permission to dig for antiquities and put locals to work with picks and shovels.)

Iranian interest in the Achaemenids increased after cuneiform writing on clay tablets and stone inscriptions was deciphered in the mid-nineteenth century. Some prominent families adorned their houses with Achaemenid-style reliefs. The British Museum exhibition catalog notes that Nasir ed-Din Shah, the monarch of the Qajar dynasty who ruled between 1846 and 1896, was “interested in antiquities.” It does not mention that his interest was primarily commercial. The author of a recent short history of Iranian archaeology writes that Nasir ed-Din did not sponsor digs “with a view to study and inquiry…but principally with the aim of acquiring gold and silver.”5

This supports the view of Rene de Balloy, the French minister in Tehran, who, in 1895, secured for France a monopoly to carry out all excavations in Persia.6 The Louvre, which had already built up a collection of French finds from Susa, some of which are in the British Museum show, was the main beneficiary of the concession, and it now has a large collection of Persian objects. The concession lasted until 1927, two years into the reign of the new monarch, Reza Shah, a former army officer who rose to power after mounting a coup. Under Reza Shah and his son and successor, Muhammad Reza, more efforts were made to prevent ancient objects from leaving the country.

Distrustful of Shia clerics and contemptuous of Arab culture, Reza Shah associated himself with the pre-Islamic past. (For example, he named his dynasty after a language, Pahlavi, that was spoken by the Sassanids.) His son went even further. He replaced the Islamic calendar with one that was based on the supposed foundation of the Achaemenid empire. He crowned himself King of Kings, a title used by the Achaemenids, in the shadow of Cyrus’ tomb. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of his accession to the throne, the Iranian parliament conferred on him the archaic title “Light of the Aryans.”7 In 1971, he organized a lavish reception for sixty of the world’s leaders or their representatives in the ruins of Persepolis. By the time he was deposed in the 1979 revolution, many Iranians regarded any Iranian monarchy, Pahlavi or Achaemenid, as synonymous with oppression and megalomania.

After 1979, influential clerics denigrated the Achaemenids, and a mob set out to destroy Cyrus’ tomb. (They were stopped by a local scholar.) The name of Persepolis soccer club in Tehran was changed to Pirouzi, which means “victory.” The pre-revolutionary vogue for Achaemenid and Sassanid first names died out; Islamic names rose in popularity. Iran’s leaders rarely made use of anti-Arab propaganda during Iran’s eight-year war against Iraq in the 1980s. Rather than call on the troops to avenge the Arab conquest of the seventh century, as the Shah would probably have done, they invoked Islamic notions of martyrdom and justice to encourage zeal.

For several years after the revolution, Iranians have told me, Sound and Image, the state broadcasting monopoly, banned references on air to the Achaemenid kings. As recently as 1999, Sound and Image gave much attention to a book, written by an Iranian, which claimed that the Achaemenids were despotic rulers whose achievements had been falsified by Jews, and that their inscriptions were European forgeries.8 When exiled Iranian opponents of the Islamic Republic spoke highly of Iran’s pre-Islamic past they often wanted to distinguish themselves from the revolutionary present.

All this explains why the Islamic Republic’s decision to send some eighty works to the British Museum was seen as involving a change of policy. The loans were arranged under the previous, reformist government of Muhammad Khatami. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election, there was a risk that the show would be canceled; but in the end, Ahmadinejad sent one of his vice-presidents to the opening. Iranian conservatives no longer openly show contempt for the Achaemenids. Pirouzi soccer club is again known as Persepolis—even by Sound and Image. Most intriguing of all, during his unsuccessful campaign to be elected president this summer, Ali Larijani, the former head of Sound and Image, appeared in an election poster in front of the ruins of Persepolis.

Clearly, the conservatives are yielding to the views of young people who are increasingly interested in the pre-Islamic past. This interest is partly a reaction to the emphasis that is placed on learning the Arabic language and Islamic culture in Iranian schools. There are now a large number of new books in Persian about the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, and Zoroastrianism, and pre-Islamic first names such as Darius and Yasna have become popular once again. Iran is also experiencing a revival, much remarked upon by Iranians I have talked to, of nationalist and anti-Arab sentiment. Ali Larijani is now Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and he uses nationalist appeals to rally public support for the nuclear program.

That the Iranian state is prepared to exploit the increasing interest of its citizens in the past does not mean that there is an “unbroken arc” linking ancient Persia to modern Iran, although these words were the title of a recent panel discussion at the British Museum.9 The discussion, in which I took part, was interesting and enjoyable, but it became clear that a great deal more divides modern Iran from the Achaemenid empire than unites them. There is no unbroken arc.

This may not please Iranian nationalists who draw inspiration from the Achaemenid and Sassanid achievements while dreaming of a new era of Persian greatness. It may not reassure those Israelis who fear that Iran, if it gets the expertise to make nuclear fuel, will lose no time in challenging Israel’s presumed nuclear supremacy, and may even start a war. But modern Iran, unlike the Persian empires of the past, has a political and cultural orbit that is tightly defined, not least by its differences from the Arab world. The characteristics that make up the Iranian identity are shared by no other people, and this militates strongly against delusions of a new, expansionist Persian empire.

This Issue

December 15, 2005