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People in the West deserve to know more about civilizations whose effects on their own were more than incidental


September 23, 2005

Open Letter to Guardian Unlimited in response to The Evil Empire by Jonathan Jones:


It will take more than one exhibition to educate Europeans about other cultures and their contributions. The level of ignorance of your journalists is truly remarkable. At least Tim Adams of the Observer (The Persians are Coming, Observer Online, September 11, 2005) admits that he knows little about the subject, whereas Jonathan Jones (The Evil Empire, Guardian Unlimited, September 8, 2005) approaches the subject with his mind already made.  The latter makes it sound that revealing the truth is a figment of the imagination of the ‘idealistic’ British Museum of Neil McGregor and John Curtis, both of whom are too serious to take liberties with scholars’ revised views that have yet to reach the public.

One solution might be to encourage such people to travel to Iran, but that seems too daunting for your two journalists. Yet, thousands of visitors from Europe and even the United States, less fearless than your two journalists, do just that every year and come back enchanted. A flight to Tehran from any European capital is a mere five or six hours away, and thus shorter than a flight to New York or New Delhi, and a trip through Iran is safer than travelling in Egypt, or for that matter, even in London now.

If they cannot stomach a trip to Iran, all they needed was to take a quick look at some of the books exhibited at the exit of the British Museum exhibition ‘The Forgotten Empire’(Ancient Persia by J. Wiesehofer would given them a brief understanding of not one, but of three great Iranian empires that flourished in competition with the West before the Arab conquest, spanning a total of some 12 centuries, or M. Miller’s Athens in the Fifth Century which could have given them a more balanced view of the biased history they have been force-fed).

Their information is over two thousand years old, and even that, read with a bias that Herodotus never had. Did they bother to read Herodotus at all? I doubt it, given that Mr. Adams is wide of the mark when he says that Herodotus wrote about Alexander’s conquest. Herodotus was born at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor and as such, he was a citizen of the Persian Empire (and according to a contested view, he was a spy for Pericles).

Most people in the West seem to share the belief that Persian rule over Greeks ended with Xerxes’ defeat at Athens, whereas in fact it was only the beginning. The majority of Greek cities lay in Asia Minor and were thus under Persian rule for some two centuries. Nor was their rule all that negative for the Greeks, who, like other subjects of the empire, were allowed to maintain their language, their beliefs and their art. The terms ‘despot’ and ‘tyrant’ were first applied to the Greek rulers of some of those city-states, not to the Persians who brought them stability (mentioned by Mr. Jones).

Stability and unprecedented prosperity was no doubt a factor in the sudden flourishing of Greek talent. One would be a fool to deny the achievements of the Greeks, but achievements are not all of the same order and lauding one does not mean having to denigrate the other. The Greeks themselves were more impressed with the Persian Empire than a European readership bred on partiality.

Greek aristocrats like Alcibiades went over to the Persians, others emulated their lifestyle (including their game parks, paradeisos in Greek, pardis in Persian, and as such the origin of your ‘paradise’). Greek mercenaries served in the Persian army; indeed, there were more Greeks in the Persian army than in Alexander’s, most of them attracted by good pay or fleeing from regular famines that their Greek democracy could not alleviate.

Given the abysmal ignorance of the Western public, I will first address some of erroneous notions that have struck deep roots and need to be corrected. First of all, Iran has been Iran to the Iranians themselves for at least two thousand years, named so by the two successor empires of the Achaemenid Persians, on the basis of their Aryan origins; the Persians were just one tribe of the Iranians who moved down from the steppes of southern Russia to settle on the plateau that was to bear their name (the Indo-Aryans had seceded from them a millennium earlier to move south to India).

It so happened that, by founding their empire, the Persians were the ones who came to be known to the Greeks (who, however, had already known of the Medes, another Iranian tribe which founded a smaller empire by conquering Nineveh); they left their name on the province from which they ruled and on the language they bequeathed to Iran. Hence Persian for culture and language and Iran for the land, as well as for the Iranian groups living beyond Iran (Pasthuns, Ossetians, Wakhi etc.)

Secondly, after a fairly short Seleucid interval, the Persian Empire was succeeded by the Parthian and Sasanian empires, each with a  history of half a millennium, the only powers to keep the Romans at bay. They deserve credit for a lot more, but since they do not figure in this exhibition (no single exhibition could cover all of that), that must be left for another occasion.

Thirdly, before the arrival of the Iranians, the plateau that was to bear their name, was the seat of the Elamite Empire, with its capital at Susa (no, Susa was not founded by the Persians.) If for no other reason, it should be known to Londoners for having been the place where the Code of Hammurabi was found as part of war booty carried off by the Elamites from Babylonia.

It was the combination of the advanced civilization of Elam and the fresh blood of the Indo-European Iranians that set the conditions for the first universal empire in the world. Nowadays it is even claimed that the ancestry of Cyrus the Great was in part from the uplands of Elam, at Anshan, where his forefathers were local kings.

No, sir, the British Museum is not misleading you about the origins of civilization. The Iranian plateau was responsible for more ‘firsts’ than Mr. Jones believes. Ur was not the first city, (Chatal Hoyuk in Anatolia was), and the Iranian plateau was home to a number of urban settlements before Ur came to be. The Elamite empire lasted over two thousand years and was preceded by ‘Proto-Elamites’ who made their own contributions to the progress of human civilization.

Recent research confirms that the Elamites and their vassals of the plateau transmitted to Ur much of what Mesopotamia has taken credit for. The Sumerian texts speak with awe of the Lord of Aratta, who sent the Sumerians many of their riches; the mass of recent finds in eastern Iran (alas, much of it coming from uncontrolled digs for the benefit of the lucrative art market), indicate that he was a local potentate of southeastern Iran.

Some scholars see in the cursory signs on the accounting tablets of the proto-Elamites the first attempt at writing, though the Elamites themselves later borrowed the cuneiform of Akkad, while their own invention moved on to the Indus Valley for the further development of a script that has not yet been well deciphered. With or without a script of their own, they were still giants of prehistorical times.

The Elamites were neither Semites nor Indo-Europeans, and they probably ruled over various ethnic groups living on the plateau, about whose language we know sadly know nothing (though the Elamite language, Khuzi, was spoken in southwestern Iran until the 10th century A.D, hence the name Khuzistan for that oil-rich province).  

Ur, which had no natural resources, imported its copper ingots and bronze bars from the Iranian highlands where the metallurgical techniques required for producing copper ingots and bronze bars on a massive scale were first developed. And intricately carved soapstone vases from the same area display architectural plans, notably of ziggurats (the ‘towers of Babel’ which could only have been inspired by a mountainous land), before the time of Ur. Susa, later the administrative capital of the Persian Empire, had been the capital of Elam since the fourth millennium B.C.

Archeology is not a static science, it evolves, but your writers have not yet been able to evolve beyond the 19th-century explorers and believe in myths long since debunked by more serious people. The reason for this late discovery is that early archaeologists were looking mainly for sites mentioned by the Bible or by Greco-Roman writers.

The Persepolis Foundation Tablets, discovered in the 1930s have now been deciphered (most of them were taken to Chicago by the archaeologist, Ernst Herzfeld). These tablets, together with other evidence that crops up every day, put the Greek social laws to shame with their scrupulous accounts of allocations of pay and food portions for labourers; they also offer proof that women worked like men and ran their own affairs, a freedom democracy was averse to granting to their Greek counterparts.

However, contrary to what Mr. Jones thinks, it is not only by virtue of archaeology that the Persian Empire (or its predecessors or successors) survive. If it were so, the continuity of a proud nation, conscious of its heritage (albeit in versions mythified by their bards), unshakeable in the strength of its identity, the continuity of its language, epics and its integration of many ancient rituals into the imported Islamic culture to which it contributed most of its great figures.

No gods, you say? Now you’re really off track. They had had many gods, but a few centuries earlier, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster had banned them in favour of a monotheistic dualism in which Ahura Mazda (present in the exhibition) reigned supreme as the God of light and wisdom (and of course, of creation, through the agency of six archangels ). It is who imparts the Light of Glory that legitimizes the rule of kings and prophets, a potent symbol that was to become the halo of Christianity in a later era.

Zoroaster is credited with having introduced the first abstract concepts into faith, a significant step that did away with the gallivanting gods Mr. Jones misses. Zoroaster is praised universally for that innovation, one that , much later, would inspire the key concepts of many other faiths, including Judaism, and through it, Christianity and Islam, a fact well-documented now, but still too little known (the same goes for the  influence of Zoroaster’s thought on Plato’s much-vaunted concept of a ‘soul). That that contribution is well accepted can be credited to the pioneering work of a British scholar, the remarkable Mary Boyce.

The Achaemenids were just beginning to accept Zoroaster’s teachings, so they left out their old gods, some of whom later made a comeback due to their popularity with the masses. The names of some of them figure in the pamphlet produced by the Iran Heritage Foundation and used to designate groups of donors to the exhibition. A copy must have been handed out to the press, but did anyone have the curiosity to ask who Mithra, Vayu or Verethragna might be? Or the winged figure in Achaemenid art?

Abstraction is in fact what dictated the idea of permanence and the perception of immovable values which, in turn, were responsible to a more static art than the Greeks fancied. Artistic criteria are subject to change, as modern art shows. But whatever one’s personal preferences in art, movement is scarcely the sole criterion by which empires are judged. Even the silver and gold rhytons, which are seen as signs of ‘oriental’ luxury, were vessels for ritual drinking. The Scythians on the steppes (who were Iranians as well), used similar horns for ritual potions.

As for the glazed tiles borrowed from Babylonia, they were first produced at Sakkara, Egypt. There can be no art and no culture without interaction; the Greeks too had borrowed from Egypt and later, in the ‘Orientalizing’ phase of the 9th and the 8th centuries B.C, borrowed from the Near East. And just as the Greeks changed the Egyptian statues into lively figures with movement and passion, so the Iranians developed the glazed tile technique through the ages, until, in the Islamic period it became the main feature of decorating walls in Iran and its cultural sphere, especially in the cities of Central Asia.

Their architecture too was imitated, at its best in India by the Persianized Moghuls. Some two thousand years after the Persian Empire had fallen, the Persian language (which had inevitably evolved) and Persian art were dominant, the main cultural influences from Istanbul to Delhi.  I do not remember having seen anything approaching the beauty of that architecture in the bastardized ‘Indo-Saracen’ style of British India.

Yes, the British Empire, let us not forget that it left democracy at home and embarked on a different path in its vast possessions. It was easy for a few thousand people in a Greek city-state to practice direct democracy, while their unpaid slaves did all the hard labour, but to run an empire of vast proportions and its diversity of  nations and creeds without a centralized bureaucracy would have been a sure recipe for mayhem, as the British, and long before them, the Romans, recognized.

But the Romans, unlike the Persians, imposed their aesthetic and other values uniformly on all colonies. Had these great empires used the methods of the Greeks, they would not have lasted, and they did not even spawn two later empires to pick up where they left off. The accomplishments of Darius I the Great in running that empire left a legacy of government that would reach India in the east and Europe in the west.

Yes, that depraved darling of the West, Alexander, only sought to become a Persian emperor, a divine one at that, and was clever enough to realize that he had to use their instruments of administration in his seven-year rule over Iran. His successors, the half-Iranian Seleucids, took over those tools and bequeathed them to the Romans Empire which, in turn, passed them on to the rest of Europe. So much for divisions between East and West.

Darius had already given the  Romans a good headstart with his postal system, his superb road network (the first ever paved road, 2500 kilometers long, from Susa to the main satrapy of Sardis in Anatolia), his unification of weights, measures and coinage throughout the empire, and a highly efficient bureaucracy ruling over half the known world. Bureaucratic, perhaps, but quite an achievement, the results of which lasted much longer than those of the democratic Greeks, who eventually, after being ruled by the Romans, fell to the obscurantism of the Christian Dark Ages.

Greek science and Greek thought were relegated to oblivion until they made a comeback, after a gap of several centuries, via the ‘Orientals’, most of them Persians of the Islamicized lands (except the last link, Averroes, who was an Andalusian). More importantly, Darius the Great, whom Robin Lane Fox’s distorted history of Alexander has called ‘an illiterate’, did something vastly more important than to learn to read and write. In those days they had scirbes to do it for them and those scribes were insructed to turn the Aramaic script (which had already served for diplomacy in the Assyrian Empire) into an imperial esperanto that could be written in one tongue and read out in another.

That is how that script went to India at the time of Darius and was then adopted by both the Brahmins and the Buddhist who passed it on to all of southeast Asia. From south Asia to Indonesia, Darius’ legacy lives on in a script first used by King Ashoka in India, and again, through Central Asia, it went to the borders of China and was used by the Turks and Mongols (each in their own adapted version).

There must be something more than ‘faceless bureaucrats’ to a subject that has diverted so many scholars from their original aim of studying the classics and turned their attention to a history bedevilled too long by the weight of prejudice in the West.  I could go on and on. A nation with a seven-thousand-year history cannot be dismissed in just a few pages for the benefit of those who permit themselves to judge it on the basis of a few objects and scraps of dated information.

The Macedonian came and became Persianized, the Arabs came and they adopted much of their refinement and government from the conquered Sasanian empire; the Mongols came and razed the country, but they too adopted its culture before disappearing. The damage wrought by the European powers has left some deeper scars in that they amputated Iran of some of its provinces. The Russians took away the Caucasian khanates, and the British took away the jewel of Persian culture that was Herat to create the Afghan bulwark for their Indian possessions. Yet Herat remains Persian despite the British, the Soviets, the Taliban and the Americans today.

The history of European distortions goes back to those colonial times. Politics has its own dictates and one of them is propaganda. How effective that propaganda can be is suggested by the title ‘Evil Empire’ and by the description of Xerxes as ‘baddie’, whereas Alexander, who did the same to the envied splendour of Persepolis as Xerxes did to an archaic Athens falling to ruin, is seen as a hero, about whose exploits a book seems to appear every other year (the last one used him as a model for modern businessmen, perhaps because he was able to generate revenue only by looting his way through the treasuries of the Achaemenids). ‘The Last Achaemenid’, as he liked to be seen, made the empire go broke.

I apologize for the length of this letter, but when you are dealing with people who do not have any clue about the subject they have the temerity to tackle, one does not have much choice but to say the obvious, unknown to them. They, not the British Museum, are misleading the public, which is why I have bothered to write at such length to explain the basics about which the Western public is sadly unaware.

People in the West deserve to know more about civilizations whose effects on their own were more than incidental.  Iran is the only country to have had this kind of continuity (China was unified by the Emperor Qin only in 221 B.C. and India by the Mauryans who emulated the Persians after they fell to Alexander). Maybe your writers will yet discover that there is more to Iran or Persia than a ‘ghost’ presently on show at the British Museum. But the task is daunting, for there is much to learn, as scholars have found out. This is not the stuff for express digests or personal grudge.

* British Museum: Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia
* Video: Channel 4 report

Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian was born in Tehran in 1940 and studied in Iran and Switzerland. In Iran she was on the committe of a number of organizations, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Women's University. See features in

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Fatema Soudavar Farmanfarmaian



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