Stone relief showing gift-bearers with a vase. From Persepolis, on loan from the Persepolis Museum, Iran.
Dianne Cutlack found there's more to Persian culture than fine rugs when she visited the British Museum.
What happens when an enlightened and sophisticated empire recedes into legend, or worse, the legends of those who conquered it? The lives of the ancient Persians, the triumphs and battles of their kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, have reached us through the distorted perspective of their foes, the ancient Greeks. How truthfully have the Persians been represented?
A new show, running until January 8, 2006 at the British Museum, hopes to redress the balance. Forgotten Empire: the World of Ancient Persia marks the achievements of the Persian kings at the height of their powers. Featuring material which has never been exhibited outside Iran before, it contains pieces from Tehran, Persepolis, the Louvre in Paris, and the British Museum’s own Oxus Treasure.
Gold griffin-headed armlet from the Oxus treasure Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC, from the region of Takht-i Kuwad, Tadjikistan. © British Museum.
A wall map near the exhibit’s entrance illustrates the extent of Persian rule. Comparable in size to the Roman Empire, ancient Persia stretched from North Africa to India, from the Aral Sea to the Persian Gulf. A silver foundation plaque from the time of King Darius I states grandly: “This is the kingdom that I hold, from Scythians who are beyond Sogdiana, thence unto Ethiopia, from Sind, thence unto Sardis.”
The Persian kings were responsible for the grand royal palaces at Susa, Persepolis and Pasargadae. The exhibit conveys the monumental scale of palace architecture with massive casts of stone reliefs from Persepolis: kneeling bulls, rearing lions, subjects offering tributes to their rulers, a hero locked in mortal combat with a fabulous, mythical monster.
A panel from the palace at Susa, depicting one of the ‘immortals’ who formed the king’s personal bodyguard, has been reconstructed in colour to give the visitor an impression of how grandly the palace would have been decorated, inside and out.
Lapis Lazuli head of a statue. From Persepolis, on loan from the National Museum of Iran.
The opulent lifestyle of the court is revealed through an audio-visual presentation that brings Persepolis back to life. The palace’s interior, richly decorated in painted tiles, glazed brick, carpets and wall hangings, is reproduced, in a computer-generated walk-through, just as it would have appeared to the awe-struck visitor 2,500 years ago.
The Persian kings were renowned for the sophistication of their dining tables. Many examples of the gold and silver tableware used in royal banquets are on display, along with the more modest bronze and pottery items in everyday use. Selections include a fine golden bowl with an embossed fluted and floral decoration, and the horn-shaped drinking vessels known as rhytons.
Persian craftsmen used standard metalworking techniques, but embellished and combined these techniques to create striking work. A gilded bronze and silver amphora handle in the form of a winged ibex sports a perfect, impish little face. A gold bracelet from Pasargadae, featuring two ibex head terminals and applied filigree, demonstrates the great skill and artistry of the designer.
Polished black limestone statue of a large mastiff. From Persepolis, on loan from the National Museum of Iran.
Continuing on through the exhibition, other accomplishments of the Persian kings are brought to light, such as their forms of administration. Each province of the empire was governed by a Persian noble known as a satrap, or ‘protector of the realm’, who was responsible for delivering royal tributes. Cilicia in southern Turkey, for example, “paid 500 talents of silver” – roughly 14 metric tons.
Coins of the realm were struck. Several display cases house an astonishing range of gold and silver money. In addition to royal coins depicting the king’s profile, many other types of coins were in circulation, issued by satraps and other officials. These coins displayed human faces and figures as well as the bodies of various animals.
The Persians were famed for their horsemanship, and the cavalry was considered the most vital part of their army. An exquisite model of a four-horse chariot in gold shows how the horses were harnessed together under one yoke – a cumbersome method of handling that would prove no match for the battle tactics of later Greek invaders.
Silver foundation plaque of Darius I. Features the same text in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Found in the Apdadana in Persepolis, on loan from the National Museum of Iran.
One of the most famous objects on display, the Cyrus Cylinder, is kept to the end of the exhibit. Discovered in Amran, Babylon in 1879, this proclamation by King Cyrus was written in Babylonian, seemingly by the order of Cyrus himself. With its references to the restoration of deported people and their gods, it is seen today as one of the earliest human rights charters.
When Alexander the Great and his Macedonians defeated the Persian armies in 334 BC, the great palaces of the Persian kings were looted and burned, their treasures scattered to the four winds. A visit to the British Museum assures that the grand accomplishments of the Persian empire will not be forgotten.
Dianne Cutlack is a freelance writer who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org