Magazine article The Middle East

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

Magazine article The Middle East

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

Article excerpt

THE WEALTH AND SPLENDOUR OF ANCIENT PERSIA is revealed in a major new exhibition that opened at the British Museum in September. The event focuses on the Ancient Persian Empire at the height of its glory and features exquisite artefacts on loan from the National Museum of Iran and the Persepolis museum, displayed in the UK for the first time. These unique treasures are supplemented with loans from the Louvre in Paris as well as the British Museum's own striking collections.

Between 550BC and 330BC, the Persians ruled over the largest empire of the Ancient Near East ever seen before or since, stretching from North Africa to the Indus Valley and from Central Asia to the Gulf. This empire is sometimes known as Achaemenid

Three Persian rulers, Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, were responsible for establishing highly sophisticated networks of power and instigating far-reaching legislation.

They controlled their empire by a system of devolved administration and government, a complex road network and an imperial postal service that ran from Sardis to Susa. They also established a monetary system--a variety of intricately wrought ancient coins can be seen at the exhibition--and to reflect their might, they built monumental palaces.

The awe-inspiring scale of the palaces at Persepolis and Susa is illustrated by the display of monumental architectural pieces, including ornate carved stone slabs depicting Ancient Persian priests, servants and tributaries bearing offerings to the kings. These carvings adorned the sides of the vast staircases that approached the raised palaces. Among the gifts offered are bracelets, wool, textiles, horses, chariots and camels, each from a specific region of the empire. The carvings are plaster casts but reflect the magnitude of scale and interestingly all portray peaceful scenes rather than battles of the mighty. To give an idea of size, the foot of a palace column on show weighs an amazing four tonnes. The column itself would have soared 20 metres into the sky and been decorated with a mixture of animal and human forms.

The immense wealth of the empire is apparent, even in the ornate tableware commissioned by the Persian kings which includes intricately carved gold and silver bowls; horn-shaped drinking cups and polished stone trays. It is thought that the bowls and drinking vessels served a dual function. Although they were used for dining, they were also prized for their bullion value, representing the wealth of the Persian king on his travels.

These vessels were used at the lavish banquets where the kings and their guests feasted on meats, breads and sweetmeats, expertly prepared by an army of cooks who favoured imported spices such as cumin from Ethiopia as well as the pistachios, dates, pomegranates, raisins and almonds, still found in modern Middle Eastern cuisine. …

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