I’ve just been to the British Museum exhibition Forgotten Empire (http://www.british-museum.ac.uk/persia/home.htm), a very interesting exhibition on the Achaemenid rulers of Iran and the Persian Empire (522-330 BC). It runs until 8th January and is definitely worth seeing. If you’ve got any kind of background in Classics it’s also a slightly weird sensation, like suddenly looking the right way through a telescope. This was the mighty empire (3 million square miles) that coexisted with the jumped up towns of classical Athens and Sparta. One exhibit summed it up. There are a lot of cylindrical seals shown, with small and very intricate designs. Often these show the ‘Persian royal hero’ fighting monsters or assorted foreign warriors. On one of them you suddenly see the opponent carrying the round shield and spear of a hoplite. What are the Greeks but just one ethnic group among many?
There’s an impressive range of material on display in the exhibition (some over specially from Iran). A lot of relief sculpture from palaces, including a very impressive image of a lion attacking a bull. The paw from a free-standing sculpture of a lion (two foot long or so – how big was the lion?). Very delicate gold jewellery and great big elaborately worked gold drinking horns. The most impressive thing of all technically was the coloured pictures on glazed brick – Persian warriors in relief against a pale blue background. Compared to monumental sculpture in stone that needs so much more design and planning. (Apparently all the bricks had to be marked so they could be assembled in the right order). And everywhere there are inscriptions – often in several languages (Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian seems to be the most common combination). There are thousands of administrative documents preserved, along with a lot of monument dedications.
So why has it been forgotten? I suspect in the West because it had the misfortune to be the Other which several cultures described themselves against. It’s never a good move to be the losers in the first great work of Western history (Herodotus). And although the Old Testament is more positive towards the Persians, they’re still significant only for the help they give the Israelite exiles. The Achaemaenid tradition survived in Iran itself under some of the later dynasties (like the Sassanians, the great opponents of the Roman Empire), but it died out after the Islamic conquest in the seventh century AD, and only got revived by the nineteenth and twentieth century Iranian dynasties. One of the last exhibits was a bizarre and yet intriguing poster from modern Iran. It shows the monumental sculpture from one of the palaces with rows of Persian soldiers, with interspersed among them ‘martyrs’ from the Iran-Iraq war. Should it be seen as 2500 years of militarism – or as a country learning to accept a pre-Islamic/non-Islamic past as part of itself?