The Persian Renaissance: A Spectacular Exhibition Devoted to the Glories of the Ancient Persian Empire Has Opened at the British Museum. It Represents One of the Great Success Stories of Ancient History, Writes Tom Holland

By Holland, Tom | New Statesman (1996), September 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Persian Renaissance: A Spectacular Exhibition Devoted to the Glories of the Ancient Persian Empire Has Opened at the British Museum. It Represents One of the Great Success Stories of Ancient History, Writes Tom Holland


Holland, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


Just south of the palatial grounds of the British embassy in Tehran stand two of the world's more unmissable museums. The first is devoted to the arts of the Muslim period: from calligraphy to carpets, Iran's Islamic heritage is to be found there, lovingly and expensively displayed. The best way to appreciate just how many resources have been lavished upon this modern and airy shrine to the splendours of Muslim Iran is to cross a forecourt and visit its twin. The National Museum is a gloomy mausoleum that showcases a much earlier period of history: the long millennia before the arrival of Islam. The treasures here are among the most archaeologically significant in the whole of the Middle East--but their setting is dingy and depressing. Many of the most precious artefacts are not even on display, but have to be kept locked away in a basement because of security inadequacies. Gold and silver are notable by their absence. The display cabinets incline instead to a dull grey monochrome.

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This neglect of the country's pre-Muslim past is unsurprising. Iran is an Islamic republic and it can often be tricky in the Middle East to divorce ancient history from modern politics. An ayatollah would look upon the contents of the National Museum with a jaundiced eye. The most splendid exhibits of all date from the 6th and 5th centuries BC, a period when the Persians of Iran ruled an empire that stretched from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush, and were themselves the subjects of a "King of Kings"--a "Shah an Shah". The Pahlavi dynasty, keen to identify itself with such A-list predecessors, exploited the glories of the Persian empire with shameless gusto. When the last shah was toppled in the 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini condemned the millennia-old traditions of Persian kingship as explicitly un-Islamic. One excitable mullah went so far as to suggest that Persepolis, the best preserved of all the ancient palaces, be bulldozed to the ground.

But the revolutionary government, even at its most militantly theocratic, would never have countenanced such vandalism. The ayatollahs are no Taliban, and most Iranians, whose sense of national identity has survived countless upheavals, retain a deep sense of pride in ancestors who successfully forged history's first world empire. Now, more than 25 years after the Islamic revolution, the Iranian government has finally shown itself willing to follow in the shah's footsteps and capitalise upon the glories of its country's ancient past for diplomatic ends. Startlingly, it is we in Britain, the erstwhile Little Satan, who find ourselves the beneficiaries.

We owe this not merely to the relative thaw in Anglo-Iranian relations, but also to the ambition and persuasiveness of John Curtis, curator of the Ancient Near East department at the British Museum, who has spent two decades pushing for an exhibition devoted to ancient Persia. The result is a spectacular coup: a show that brings together for the first time the most significant Persian antiquities from the British Museum and the Louvre, as well as from Persepolis and Tehran. Thrillingly, even some of the treasures normally kept in deep-storage beneath the National Museum have been disinterred.

Which is not to say, even now, that the vaults of Tehran have been emptied, that it is necessarily all precious metals and bejewelled magnificence. The title that Curtis has given to the exhibition, "The Forgotten Empire", reflects the undoubted fact that evidence of how ancient Persia functioned is often fragmentary and diffuse. Yet it is precisely this that makes the exhibition such a revelation. …

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