The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (2)

31 December 2010
Photo Jona Lendering

Cyrus Cylinders For Sale

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.

A modern Persian carpet showing Cyrus the Great, seen in Tehran.

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.


The Cyrus Cylinder in Tehran (1)

30 December 2010

The Cyrus Cylinder

“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.

Department of Foreign Affairs

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.

Achaemenid Soldier in Reza Shah's Palace

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.

[to be continued+]

Coming to Isfahan

29 December 2010

Sharestan Bridge

Isfahan is always a bit tricky, as Jean Cocteau (in Le Grand Ecart) pointed out.

Un jeune jardinier persan dit à son prince :

“J’ai rencontré la Mort ce matin.
Elle m’a fait un geste de menace.
Sauve-moi! Je voudrais être par miracle,
à Ispahan ce soir.”

Le bon prince prête ses chevaux.
L’après-midi, ce prince rencontre la Mort.
“Pourquoi lui demande-t-il avez-vous fait ce matin,
à notre jardinier, un geste de menace?”

– “Je n’ai pas fait un geste de menace,” répond-elle,
“mais un geste de surprise.
Car je le voyais loin d’Ispahan ce matin
et je dois le prendre à Ispahan ce soir.”

Tepe Sialk

29 December 2010

Tepe Sialk

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.

Some old photos here; an old blog post here.

İstanbul, unexpectedly

23 December 2010

The citadel of Byzantium

A personal post this time. I am on my way to Iran, where I was supposed to be present when a friend would affirm his commitment to an Isfahanian woman. I do not know if there is an English word for an ‘engagement party’, but that’s what it is. Unfortunately, I won’t be there, as my plane reached Istanbul with some delay, and I’ve missed my plane to Tehran. I’ll arrive one day too late, but for the time beıng, I am enjoying an unexpected stay ın Istanbul, one of the nıcest cities ın the world. Pity that I cannot take photos, as my luggage is lost.

The Early Career of Pertinax

8 December 2010

Replica of the Bruhl Inscription. Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz.

The first stages of the career of the emperor Pertinax are known from the opening lines of his biography in the Historia Augusta (“Pertinax“, 1.5-2.4). This information was confirmed by an inscription from Brühl near Cologne, which is interesting because – even though it is extremely damaged and only forty-nine letters survive – could be restored almost completely by the German scholar H.G. Kolbe. Having reconstructed the original wording, he even managed to add some details to the outline offered in the Historia Augusta.

You can read it here.

Firmicus Maternus

2 December 2010

An astrological chart redrawn from Firmicus II.29.10

A work in progress, but enough of it to report here: Firmicus Maternus’ Mathesis — his textbook on astrology. As noted on my orientation page, the same edition is already online, as flat photostatic copies, divided between two places, so rekeying all that Latin may be looked at as totally superfluous or useful, depending on one’s point of view. In progress, because of the 8 Books only five are available right now, of which only two are fully proofread.

No English, but the Latin is very easy, especially if you’re conversant with astrology; and why else would anyone read this stuff?

A couple of hours after posting, on second thought: Actually, since the delineations cover everything that could come to mind to a 4c Roman as possibly happening to a human being, attentive reading — such as required in proofreading — brings out a full picture of life in those times: certain diseases rather than others, a lot about frittering away or losing one’s inheritance, a lot about violent death, an undercurrent of fearing the rulers (not made any better by the pointed instruction to avoid so much as looking at the horoscope of the emperor, with the specious intellectual rationale given that He Isn’t Subject To The Law Of The Heavens, Since He’s Above Them And Is A Very God).

The chart I show here by the way is a rare thing in the work, Firmicus doesn’t give many, maybe only this one: but he needed to spell it all out in order to show how someone with such a good chart on the surface can in fact have a much worse destiny, because hey you gotta look at the antiscia too. It is in fact an example of “fudging” by piling on complexities, so that indications of just about anything can be found in a chart if you only look hard enough: something that astrologers still do today.