Louis Vanden Berghe (1923-1993) was a Flemish Iranologist, the founder of Irania Antiqua, the excavator of a/o Pusht-i Kuh in Luristan, and a member of the prestigious Society of Antiquaries of London. He is also the author of a useful list of Iranian rock reliefs, published in Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien (1983). Because I am now changing my pages on Naqš-i Rustam, a site with many Sasanian reliefs, the book is on my desk, and I decided to make it available online. So here it is, with links to photos of the sites.
The Archaeological Museum of Tehran has all the advantages of an old-fashioned institution. As the regular reader of this blog may know, I think that one of the problems with modern museums is that they try to evoke some kind of mysterious atmosphere: in poorly-lit rooms, you can see only a couple of objects lying there, beautifully spotlighted, just looking mysterious. The illumination allows you to look at it from one point of view, but not from other angles. Photography is almost impossible. In other words, you cannot study the objects.
I get the impression that museums are now leaving this cul-de-sac, and return to decent displays. The Tehran museum has never succumbed to ill-directed aestheticism, and this makes it, easily, one of the better museums dedicated to ancient culture.
This does not mean that there are no beautiful objects. The first part, dedicated to the Neolithicum and Bronze Ages, culminates in the pottery from Susa, which is just splendid. Recently, this part has been redesigned; several objects from the important excavations at Jiroft have been inserted, to name but one change.
Passing along a nice sculpture of a bovine from Choga Zanbil, you will reach the Iron Age, where you will find an Assyrian and an Urartaean inscription, and countless small objects. They are interesting, but your attention is drawn by the great relief next to it, from the northern stairs of the Apadana in Persepolis (photo above; more…). Next to it, about half-way through the exhibition, is the statue of Darius from Susa (more…). I visited the museum yesterday with an Egyptologist, who was fascinated by the hieroglyphs.
There are some other Achaemenid remains, including several inscriptions (like this one) and some fine art. Here, you will also see a Penelope in wet-drapery style, taken to Persepolis by either Xerxes or Mardonius.
Compared to the Achaemenid age, the Greek, Parthian, and Sasanian ages are a bit underrepresented. From the Greek age is a fine bust of a Muse, from the Parthian age is a splendid bronze statue of a prince (one of the few remaining bronze statues from Antiquity), and from the Sasanian age are the spooky salt men and some mosaics from Bishapur, made by Antiochene artists.
The museum has a treasury that contains precious objects, made of silver and gold, but it is often closed. Asking for permission to get there is futile. In this aspect, the Tehran Museum suffers from the same error as western museums: it creates obstacles for students. I think this is inexcusable. There is simply no reason why a museum should hide its entire collection from people who have made an effort to get there.
This being said, the Tehran museum is really something special. Next to it is the museum of Islamic Art, which has not been open for quite some time; I remember that I liked it very much. Around the corner you will find the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, situated in a building that is inspired by the Persepolis Apadana; and around another corner, you will find a charming museum dedicated to fine art made of glass. If you have only one day in Tehran, spend it in this part of the city.
Every day, about 4,000 Iranian pilgrims heading for Kerbala cross the Iraqi frontier at Qasr-e Shirin. They will probably not notice this little relief at Dukkan-e Daud, “David’s Shop”. It shows a Magian or a Zoroastrian priest, and can be found immediately below a Late Achaemenid tomb. The relief appears to be unfinished and I would not be surprised if a fire altar was part of the original design.
Few Iranian monuments will be cared for so much, because the local population believes that the relief represents King David. There may indeed have been a King David in this area, a Jewish smith with several disciples, who may or may not have been buried over here. That’s the story I read about this relief. Others say that the famous king mentioned in the Bible and Quran found his final resting place over here. However that may be, many people have preferred to be buried below the rock, close to this King David, and women present their babies to the ancient tomb.
David’s Shop is about three kilometers east of Sar-e Pol-e Zahab, a bit south of the main road from Qasr-e Shirin to Kermanshah. The relief is included as #18 in Louis Vanden Berghe’s Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien (1984).
It is probably one of the best-known and most impressive images from movie history: the spectacular rise of the sun and the earth over a moonscape, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. A Space Odyssey. Kubrick seems to have liked the image, because he repeated it several times, with minor variations like the sun rising over a strange monolith or the sun rising over a crescent-shaped earth (video).
Of course, it is not just the image that makes this scene unforgettable. It is the splendid music that really matters and makes the experience, in a word, sublime. This is what makes cinema great, and this is why I went back to see 2001 at least five times.
Kubrick’s movies are usually full of little, intellectual jokes. To offer an example from his wicked Doctor Strangelove: if in one scene a group of soldiers is ordered to bomb the “Laputa Missile Complex”, it comes as no surprise that in another scene a Soviet leader is visiting a brothel. And yes, la puta is not only Spanish for “prostitute”, but also a reference to Gulliver’s Travels. I said Kubrick was a bit of an intellectual, didn’t I?
Perhaps, the intellectual joker in Kubrick also accompanied the artist when he created the sunrise in 2001. The impressive music is from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spoke Zarathustra”), and belongs to a part of that symphonic poem that represents a sunrise. Well-chosen, but there is more to be said.
Strauss’ tone poem was in turn based on Friedrich Nietzsche’s book with the same title. The philosopher was not particularly interested in the Iranian prophet Zarathustra, but merely needed a hero that was older than Judaism and Greek philosophy, and lived at the dawn of history.
It seems that Kubrick did some research into Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by the real Zarathustra. The alignment of a lunar crescent and the sun is a common theme in eastern art. It can be seen, for example, on every Achaemenid royal tomb, and I would not be surprised if Kubrick knew it. An even closer parallel can be found on two monoliths from Harran, which can be seen in any book on ancient eastern art: the Babylonian king Nabonidus venerating the moon crescent, a planet, and the sun.
Perhaps some of you will object that Babylonian art has little to do with Zoroastrianism, or remark that it is debatable whether the Achaemenids adhered to the teachings of Zarathustra. Of course that’s fair criticism, but as I said: Kubrick was an intellectual and an artist – he was not an Iranologist.