During our visit to Iran, my sister Maria Kouijzer, who is a professional photographer, made these two nice panorama photos.The first one shows Persepolis from the southeast…
The Iranians’ English will always be better than my Farsi, so it is somewhat out-of-place to criticize their use of English expressions. Yet, I would be happier if they stopped calling the ancestors of the ancient Medes and Persians “Aryans”.
The point is that, when you learn a language, you must not just learn words and syntax, but also the cultural codes that indicate which (grammatically correct) expressions you can and cannot use in a given context. For example, the former Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, is on record for publicly using the f-word; he was apparently not aware of the extreme vulgarity of the expression (although he must have known Joe Biden’s gaffe), and must have lost all credibility among native speakers of the English language.
Now, to return to the word “Aryans”: modern Iranians use that expression for the migrating tribesmen of the Iron Age, and I am aware that in Iran, it is completely acceptable. You can find an Aryan Hotel in Hamadan and the photo of the Arian Body Building School was taken in Sari. It is common. I also know that the expression has been used in English, German, French, and so on. I won’t blame the Iranians for using the expression in their own language. But the horrors of World War II have given the word, when used in English, a completely new meaning; it is no longer idiomatic and should be avoided when you write English.
It will, for a non-native speaker, always be difficult to know the latest colloquialisms, and no one will argue that we must use all politically correct expressions, but foreigners writing English must also seek to steer clear from false friends. In this case, “Aryan”, although perfectly acceptable in Iran and found in old books, is better substituted by “Indo-Iranians” or “Proto-Iranians”.
A visit to the ruins of the palaces of Persepolis is always a pleasure and a prerogative. There are two hotels in the close neighborhood, which make it is easy to spend the two days you need without being forced to return to Shiraz. Compared to last year, the visit is even more delightful, because some shops have been reopened and there’s a new, small pub next to the Queens’ Quarters. The old pub, beyond the Treasury, used to be closed but is now a restaurant.
The reopening of the pub was long overdue. You cannot spend several hours on a site without having a cup of tea or coffee. The souvenir shop – well, let’s be honest: most of the objects are crap, and it is only rarely that they are so tasteless that they get a campy beauty of their own. I am glad I saw that replica of the Cyrus Cylinder in a
crystal plastic ball. (Interesting question: Shi’ites and Roman Catholics have produced the most beautiful art – how come that in Iran and Italy, they also sell the most terrible kitsch?)
Still, it is better if they sell ugly objects and outdated books than nothing at all. Of course, I would prefer that they had a decent bookshop where you can buy, say, an excavation report (compare the Museum of Tabriz), but crap is at least something. People do take those souvenirs with them, will laugh about them at home, but will also say that Iran is a beautiful country where you can see, for example, the most splendid tile work in the world. They will add that the Iranians are friendly and courteous, that the landscape is incomparable, and that they had a superb holiday. They will show photos, and will convince others that Iran is not the terrible place it appears to be in the western media. This will – I hope – convince others to visit Iran. Postcards may have the same result, and fortunately, they are now for sale.
I will leave it to pundits to discuss the political benefits of people losing prejudices, and just mention that the road to good bookshops and nice souvenirs starts by creating a larger market. Persepolis is back on track.
Yet, much needs to be improved. What greatly disturbed me was “The World Heritage, Introduction Salloon” in front of the entrance. I passed along it, and there were loud sounds coming from it; an English voice explained the significance of the site, making several exaggerated claims. Now I can live perfectly with that; the Greeks believe they’ve invented about every art you can think of, in Syria they claim to be the cradle of religions, and I won’t even mention Israel, so the Iranians may boast a bit too much as well. But what I find unacceptable is the noise. Even when we were watching the Gate of All Nations and the Apadana, we had some difficulty to talk, because of the loudspeakers. I got the impression that no one entered the World Heritage Introduction Saloon, and it is not hard to understand why.
(Jona’s peregrinations in Iran, continued:)
Bastam is not Iran’s most famous archaeological site and it will not be my favorite site either, yet it is worth a detour when you’re traveling from, say, Tabriz to the Armenian church of Saint Thaddaeus, the famous Qara Kelisa, at Tadios.
An inscription suggests that the town was originally called Rusai-URU.TUR, the last two elements being — I think — sumerograms: Sumerian signs used in later scripts. We do not know how they were pronounced by the users of these later scripts. The first element refers to the founder of the town, king Rusa II of Urartu, who ruled in the first half of the seventh century. Measuring 850 × 400 meters, the stronghold is larger than any other Urartian, except for two settlements in Van. The civil settlement to the north of it measures 600 × 300 meters. Among the things to see are the walls, gates, and a large temple of Haldi.
We were actually on our way to Qara Kelisa, but I was glad to have visited the site, even though it was only a brief visit. What I remember best, is the modern village, where all people were cleaning their carpets to prepare for the Now Ruz celebrations.
The Cyrus Cylinder has become a symbol of Iranian nationalism – for reasons that I already described above. Now, the object is in Tehran: a loan from the British Museum, where it normally is to be seen. This is remarkable, because in the twentieth century, the relations between Britain and Iran have gone from bad to worse, and quite recently, the Iranian Parliament discussed cutting the diplomatic ties altogether. It was no surprise that when the loan was, last year, unexpectedly postponed, the Iranians felt cheated.
There was a reason for this, however: two small fragments of cuneiform texts had been discovered that contained texts similar to that of the Cylinder. Apparently, Cyrus broadcast his interpretation of the conquest of Babylonia widely. The British Museum found the study of these fragments more important than loaning the object to Iran. I do not know why, but at first sight, I get the impression that those Iranians who argued that it was a deliberate act, may have a point. If the study of so many so much more important texts can be postponed (for half a century, a substantial part of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets was ignored), it is indeed rather suspicious that finding two fragments is considered important enough to risk a diplomatic riot.
Many Iranians no longer trust the British and there are wild (but unfounded) speculations that the Cylinder sent to Tehran was a replica. All this shows on the one hand how important the Cylinder has become to the Iranians, and how bad the relations between the two countries have become. Although I came to Iran to attend an engagement party in Isfahan, a visit to this exhibition, with all the political fuzz surrounding it, was irresistible.
The museum has taken many security measures: visitors are not even allowed to take telephones with them. No one can say that the Iranians do not treat the object without proper care. After entering the museum, the visitors of the exhibition first arrive in a waiting room with replicas of Achaemenid art and large panels with information about the cylinder. I am aware that Persepolis is quite unrelated to Cyrus, and I am also aware that we have only Darius’ word that Cyrus belonged to the Achaemenid family (Herodotus’ evidence is probably derived from the Behistun text and can be eliminated), but the room is carefully arranged and it’s all nicely done.
After a few minutes, we could leave the waiting room and enter the room devoted to the cylinder itself, which lies in a glass display, together with the two new fragments. The Iranian woman with whom I visited the exhibition, was surprised that the object was so small. After five minutes, we had to leave the room again, as if a new group of people were being allowed to enter. The system is probably designed to manage large numbers of visitors, and I have heard that there have indeed been hundreds of people every day, but when I was there, we were with only five people in the room, and no one entered when we were requested to leave.
What always saddens me, is that that the Tehran museum does not sell any good books. You can get some replicas, but the visitor who really wants to know more, is left disappointed. The current exhibition would have been the perfect moment to change this, but the two small shops outside sell the usual touristy rubbish, including posters and mugs with a false translation of the Cylinder. The hundreds of visitors offered the perfect opportunity to spread good, up-to-date information; why the Iranian archaeological authorities have not seized this chance, I do not know.
“How can you rule a country that offers two hundred types of cheese?”, Charles de Gaulle used to say, meaning that France was insufficiently unified to be governed. His contemporary, Mohamad Shah, faced the same problem: ruling a country with large ethnic minorities, with people on several stages of economic development, with diverse political orientations.
The only thing they shared was a religious orientation: it is possible to interpret the Shi’a as an expression of Iranian nationalism. Iran is indeed Islamic, but under its own conditions, and since the sixteenth century, the Shi’a has been used by worldly leaders to unify the country. The clerics usually supported the Safavid and Qajar dynasties: after all, until the return of the Twelfth Imam, the believers live in uncertainty about the exact nature of the Divine Law. However, the father of Mohamad Shah, Reza Shah, had introduced policies similar to Atatürk’s, in which religion was not to play a role. This way to unify Iran was blocked.
The break was expressed in many ways, including architecture. If you are in Tehran, you can walk from the old Qajar palace to the twentieth-century buildings of the Department of Foreign Affairs: on the one hand the traditional style, with beautiful painted tiles, on the other hand a modern classicism, comparable to Italian architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, using Achaemenid and Sasanian models. The message was clear: there had once been a real Iran, ruled by kings, and Reza Shah was to restore it after many dark centuries of theocratic rule.
Mohamad Shah had similar ideas and started, in the 1960s, to put forward the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty as some kind of ideal ruler. In 1971, he commemorated Cyrus’ death, with many royals from all over the world visiting Persepolis and Pasargadae. Focusing on Cyrus was clever, because he was well-known: both Greek sources (e.g., Herodotus) and the Bible speak friendly about him. It all seemed to be confirmed by a document found in Babylon, the Cyrus Cylinder. On another occasion I will blog about the Shah’s misinterpretation of this text as a human rights charter; now, I am focusing on the exhibition of the cylinder in the National Archaeological Museum of Tehran.
I just arrived in Iran, where one of my best friends will celebrate his engagement to a woman from Isfahan. At half past four in the morning, there’s little to do at the Tehran Airport, except for looking for your luggage – some of it is apparently lost – and sitting in a chair, trying to fall asleep. But dreams didn’t come and I wished I had not introduced my friend to his future wife – I might have been sleeping in a warm bed at home.
After some time, I decided to take a taxi to Isfahan. A long and pretty expensive trip, but it would at least bring me to my hotel, where I would find sleep a lot easier. We passed along Qom, while the taxi driver continued to ask questions. Iranians are among the most xenophile people in the world and just cannot resist asking questions. I told something about my job, and before I knew, the “shortcut” he proposed had turned out to be a short detour along “a little known archaeological site” that my man wanted me to see.
Tepe Sialk, very early in the morning. The driver had been kind to show me something he believed I didn’t know, so I pretended never to have been there before. In spite of – or because of – this comedy, I greatly enjoyed the unexpected sight. No photos (it was not open yet) but it was nice to see this special place again: here, you can see the complete cultural development from the first half of the fifth millennium BCE. It was, even while I felt uncomfortably cold, absolutely worth the detour, and I almost regretted that we continued to Isfahan.