Sunday, October 23, 2005

Iran and Persia

Recent developments in Iranian politics almost caused the cancellation of an exhibition in London (see 'Enlightened empire' by Peter Aspden,  FT Magazine,3 Sept --- link).
Curtis [the British Museum’s keeper of the ancient Near East department] explains how the works nearly became an early victim of the surprise election in June of Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad [...]. The pieces, which will take pride of place in the museum’s galleries for four months, were all packed and ready to leave - until Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory. After the election there was, in Curtis’s words, “an entirely understandable reluctance” on behalf of the officials who had arranged the loan to take the final decision to send them on their way. Cultural co-operation can be too easily seen as unseemly political compliance. “It was decided to take the decision to the Council of Ministers, following a flurry of comment in the Iranian press on the wisdom of exporting such iconical pieces, given the risks involved,” says Curtis. The council, chaired by the outgoing president Mohammad Khatami, gave the go-ahead at its meeting on July 24.
There are some interesting reflections on ancient history:
Evidence shows the Persian empire to have been a tolerant one. “We think the Achaemenid kings were Zoroastrians, but it wasn’t a state religion. Archives describe the worship of other gods and when kings travelled abroad they paid lip service to local gods. It was clear that local religions were allowed to flourish.”
Nor should the Persians be regarded as excessively bellicose, despite the notoriety of the Greco-Persian wars under Darius and Xerxes. The former’s incursion into Greece was prompted by unwelcome Greek interference in Asia Minor. “The Persians never entertained serious thoughts of holding and annexing mainland Greece. It would have been a bridge too far,” says Curtis. “The sole purpose of the exercise was punitive.” Yet the spin of Greek historians, from Herodotus onwards, ensured that it was the heroic rearguard action at Marathon that captured the public imagination, to the extent that it is still celebrated in every major athletics championship.

For the late Edward Said, in his highly influential essay “Orientalism”, the depiction of Persia in the tragedies of Aeschylus was nothing less than the beginning of the west’s wilful misunderstanding of the east, which he believed played such a crucial historical role in present-day conflicts. When I talk to Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s director, about the exhibition, he concurs. “The Greeks helped create the division between Europe and Asia, those stereotypes of the freedom-loving, tough European versus the servile, luxurious, effeminate, despotic Asian. We have gone on living with those stereotypes in an extraordinary way, because of the way Greek literature was absorbed into the mainstream.”
And then, he says, it is the way in which Persia worked out how to rule over its empire. “It was a multinational organism, and it is very fascinating to see how quickly the issues that any multinational organism has to deal with are identified. They showed that you can leave alone and foster local religions and habits, and all you really need [to be centrally controlled] are communications, the law and military security. The rest can be devolved.”
To return to the recent past, in the early days of the Iranian revolution of 1979,
Rumours abounded that some religious fanatics wanted to destroy some of the monuments in Persepolis. John Curtis rebuts these rumours, attributing them to a single ayatollah who made some derogatory remarks about the site. “It was never in any danger at all. [All the sites] have been very well looked after and tended throughout.”
Read the rest, especially the passage on the Shah and the one on the decision to pull the complementary show on the Shia tradition of martyrdom, in the wake of the London bombings of July 7.


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