Iranian Explanatory Signs

Taq-e Bostan

Right now, I am in Iran again. It is always a pleasure to meet the people and visit the museums, which have improved considerably during the last years. The small museum at the Hamadan excavations, which was in October still partly closed, is now open again – you can still smell the fresh paint. In the same city, the mausoleum of Bu Ali (or Avicenna, or Ibn Sina, whatever you like to call the great scientist) has been renewed. A bit more to the west, the monuments of Behistun have been made more accessible. The site of the Achaemenid palace in Susa has been improved, the restoration of the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae has been finished, while the restoration of the palace of Ardashir in Firuzabad has advanced substantially since October. The museum at Bishapur is still closed, but the rebuilding and redecoration appear to be almost finished.

All this is of course a great advance, and if I am a bit skeptical about the new explanatory signs, that is just a minor quibble. Still, it is a pity that the explanations are not completely up-to-date. Take, for instance, the sign at Taq-e Bostan that says that one of the reliefs shows king Ardeshir II receiving his investiture from Mithra and Ahurmazda. This is an old theory, but it has been discarded. The king is standing on a Roman emperor, whose face is carefully copied from a coin of Julian the Apostate, who was defeated by the Persian king Shapur II. The crown of the Persian king shown in Taq-e Bostan is identical to the crown of Shapur shown on his coins.

Or take the lion of Hamadan. In 1968, the German scholar Luschey proposed the theory that this was part of a monument dedicated to Hephaestion, the lover of Alexander the Great, who died in Hamadan. This is easily refuted: Hephaestion was buried in Babylon, the Greeks and Macedonians erected lion statues only for soldiers – plural – killed in action (e.g., Leuctra, Chaeronea, Amphipolis), Alexander did not build any monument in Iran, and the lion first stood close to a cemetery from the Parthian age. Because this hypothesis is so obviously wrong, it was never refuted, and it would have been forgotten if it had not been mentioned by Lane Fox in his notorious biography of Alexander, which became a bestseller. Unfortunately, the lion has now an explanatory sign that states as a fact that the lion was erected for Hephaestion – not even Luschey and Lane Fox dared to say that this was a fact, they were careful to say that it was a hypothesis.

Sometimes, the visitor starts to suspect intentional disinformation. In the Tehran museum, an English sign says that one relief represents a member of the ancient Persian clergy, and the corresponding sign in Farsi adds that “back then, the clergy also had great influence”. The lengthy explanatory sign that was recently erected in Gandj Nameh, which made it clear that Darius’ inscription was purely monotheistic while Xerxes’ text was polytheistic, has already been partly removed.

I have heard people say that the Islamic authorities use the explanatory signs for propaganda, presenting the Achaemenid state as monotheistic, with kings listening to the clergy. That the Iranian government presents the past in its own way may be true; it would, in any case, fit a  larger pattern: many – perhaps: most – governments pay only for research they like. In my own country, the Netherlands, there is more attention paid to the semi-legendary Batavians (a tribe on the edge of the Roman Empire that was once believed to be the ancestor of my nation) than they really deserve. Right now, there are at least three projects to reconstruct a ship from the Roman age, while Medieval ships are almost ignored, even though many wrecks have been found, and these ships were the foundation of the Dutch commercial power of the seventeenth century. Similar stories can be told about almost any nation. I would not blame the Iranian authorities for stressing those aspects of the past they appreciate most. All nations do so.

Still, I think that the present accusation is simply unfair. Taq-e Bostan and the lion of Hamadan show that the people who have made the signs, use rather old information. That would also fit a larger pattern; I remember meeting an Iranian professor who had written an article about Alexander but confessed that he had no access to the Latin text of Curtius Rufus, and was glad that he had found it on the internet.

To sum up: it is true that the staff of the Iranian museums and excavations may improve their museums even further by writing explanatory signs that are more up-to-date, but I do not think that they are more biased than archaeologists and historians in other countries. The real problem is that the results of modern Iranology remain locked in western university libraries. Now that is a serious problem, much more important than the explanatory signs. For the time being, I am really glad with Iran’s improved museums, and enjoying them every day.

One Response to Iranian Explanatory Signs

  1. barcid says:

    Always excellent stuff from you. I really enjoyed this entry.

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