Gur-e Dokhtar

13 October 2011
Photo Patrick Charlot

Gur-e Dokhtat

I have never met Mr Charlot from France, but he occasionally sends me photos from Iran, where he visits places that I never visit: Kurangun, Guyum, Qadamgah, Sarab-i Bahram, and Sarab-e Qandil. Last month, he sent me several photos of Gur-e Dokhtar, where an Achaemenid tomb can be seen. The small monument is remarkably similar to the more famous mausoleum of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae, but is interesting in itself.

You can read Mr Charlot’s article here.

Classics in Decline

29 September 2011

In 2011, I wrote a book called De klad in de klassieken, “Classics in Decline”. It is about the way classicists, archaeologists, and historians try to guarantee that their information is adequate. The seven first chapters deal with their craftmanship, the three final ones with the problems they are facing in the Dutch, bureaucratic universities. The book was published in January 2012. Below is an English synopsis; a Dutch summary is here.


Scholarship is in a state of crisis and the first branch that is no longer capable of keeping up with the others, is the study of Antiquity. This is not just the problem of classicists, Biblical scholars, archaeologists, Egyptologists, Assyriologists, historians, and so on. The causes of the decline of the classics are relevant to other branches of scholarship and science as well.

1 ‘A field of study, too easy for truly great minds’

What is the study of Antiquity? Subdisciplines. Poliziano and the origin of textual criticism; Nanni and source criticism; Erasmus; Pyrrhonism; antiquarianism and the widening scope of history; the Enlightenment.

2 Three Geniuses and a Politician

Winckelmann and Gibbon and the synthesis of earlier approaches; Philhellenism; Wolf defines the scope of the study of Antiquity; the organizer Von Humboldt; the rise of institutes; pros and cons of institutes. Four main problems:

  1. insufficient attention to the ancient Near East,
  2. archaeology insufficiently appreciated,
  3. acceptance of an unproven continuity from Antiquity up to the present day,
  4. historicism.

3 Words from the Past

Linguistic interpretation of ancient texts; cultural interpretations; intertextuality; subjectivity; Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics; Dilthey; formalism; oral literature. The fifth main problem: outdated information, because of (among other factors) outdated hermeneutic approaches.

4 Facts and Comparisons

Eyewitness accounts and primary sources; secondary sources; facts, indirect facts, aggregated facts; logical problems with empirical study; from fact to language; problems with historicism; acceptance of wide comparisons; justification of comparanda; need to collaborate with the social sciences.

5 The Handmaid of History

From antiquarianism to archaeology; Schliemann; archaeology as the handmaid of history; Kosinna; Childe; culture-historical archaeology and nationalism.

6 Archaeologies

Collaboration with the social sciences breaks historicism (a way to solve main problem #4); decisive changes (functionalism, Clark, radiocarbon); spatial archaeology (Iraq-Jarmo Project); the so-called New Archaeology; possibility to say meaningful things about continuity (a way to solve main problem #3); postprocessual archaeologies and hermeneutics; classical archaeology until 1970; Snodgrass; archaeology no longer a subdiscipline of classics (solution to main problem #2); Greece no longer considered the cradle of civilization; more attention to the ancient Near East (solution to main problem #1).

7 Facts and Explanations

The five explanatory models

  • hermeneutics,
  • positivism,
  • comparativism,
  • narrativism,
  • physics of society.

Just when four of the five main problems were potentially solved, new problems arose.

8 The Fifth Main Problem

Three examples of serious disinformation; types of error (pseudo-history, quack history, exaggeration, contamination, outdated information); the rise of outdated information and its explanations:

  • the internet*, combined with pay sites*, offer quack historians an opportunity to refer to sources, whereas true scholars can only refer to pay sites and will lose any online discussion;
  • students must obtain their MA’s in too short a time*, and are no longer recognize capable of recognizing outdated information;
  • the Convention of Valletta caused an archaeological data explosion.

We’re living in an age in which outdated information can spread faster than reliable information, while academics are less capable to fight against disinformation.

9 Waterskiing behind a Wine Ship

What is quality? Doubts about truth claims,* bureaucratic solutions.* Other problems: insufficient cooperation between historians, classicists, archaeologists; unanswered questions; insufficient theoretical innovation. Poor explanation to non-academicians; rise of a class of aggressive sceptics.*

How things went wrong. Failure of quality control;* underfunding;* disadvantages of bureaucracy;* no control whatsoever of the information sent out to the larger audience.

Must we accept the end of the classical studies? No, but reform is necessary and possible.

10 Leaving the Procrustean Bed

Scholarship should serve society, but the present Dutch universities are a Procrustean bed. What to do?

  • Answer ignored questions about comparanda and continuity;
  • Form follows content: only when we know what we really want, we can create a new system of study. Independent institutes are better than large universities. If creating an institute for all classical studies, is only possible by making it an elitist institute, that is acceptable.
  • Make sure that the larger audience understands what scholarship is about.
  • Create efficient types of control, not focused on the amount of articles published every year, but on the correctness of information that is circulating in society.

Subjects indicated with * are also relevant to other fields of scholarship.

Modern cartoons, ancient ideas

11 August 2011

Martin Rowson is a British cartoonist. You can find his work in The Guardian, like this one, which connects the Tottenham Riots with the financial crises that continue to plague the western world:

I think it’s brilliant, but that’s not why I am writing this. The same comparison – politicians doing nothing while the world is burning – is made in the next cartoon, which appeared on 28 October 1912 in the German satirical journal Simplicissimus. It illustrates the outbreak of the First Balkan War: “Unfortunately,” the caption says, “the united European fire brigade was unable to stop te fire”.

The fact that two cartoonists make the same comparison, illustrates the power of the metaphor. The idea that the world can be set ablaze, is a very old one. I believe that it stems from Stoic ideas about ekpyrosis and Christian and Jewish apocalypticism. Both are, in turn, inspired by Zoroastrian ideas about the end of the world.

The Bagayasha Chronicle

25 July 2011

One of the fragments of the Bagayasha Chronicle

Finally, after years of struggling, Irving Finkel and Bert van der Spek have decided that it is time to bring the “Bagayasha Chronicle” online. It is an extremely difficult text, which still defies proper understanding, but seems to be part of an astronomical diary of about the 130s BC.

Nevertheless, it is reasonably clear that the text deals with the brother of the Parthian king Mithradates I the Great, Bagayasha, who visits Babylon for a punitive action. What happens exactly, is not really known, but the council of Greek elders has to explain things, generals are present, there is a reference to plundering, and the Greek citizens leave their homes. After this, we read about supplications from the Babylonians in the city, led by the šatammu; someone intercedes for the citizens; Bagayasha seems to agree and leaves for Borsippa. It seems that Babylon has acted treacherously, somewhere in the years following Mithradates’ conquest, perhaps when the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator was trying to regain his dominions (in 141-138).

Finkel and Van der Spek think that they have made all progress they were able to make, and have decided to an evulgetur, and I had the honor of preparing the online edition. They invite scholars to suggest new interpretations (more).

They have another fragment concerning Bagayasha in stock, which will be published ASAP. You can find the new chronicle here.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]


Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.

Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011


Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]

Tonight’s Lunar Eclipse, Seen from Babylon

15 June 2011

Astronomical Diary, mentioning the battle of Gaugamela. The Babylonian astronomers correctly predicted the rise of Alexander and the demise of Darius III.

The ancient Babylonians were great astronomers. It is too easy to laugh about their astrological achievements: we know about the earth’s orbit around the sun and we understand why the seasons change with the constellations, but back then, it was quite a discovery that the rise of Aquarius always announced the rise of the water level in the Euphrates and Tigris.

In an age prior to the invention of statistics, it was also hard to recognize that within an interval of a hundred days, there’s always a ruler whose reign comes to an end (there are so many states and so many rulers, while their tenure of office is limited), so the astronomers’ discovery that within a hundred days after a lunar eclipse, there’s always a ruler who dies, retires, or is overthrown, is not to be derided.

As it happens, we understand the four systems with which the astronomers predicted the end of the rule of the leaders of independent states, because we can read the ancient handbook, Shumma Sin ina tamartishu. The eclipsed lunar disk was divided into four quadrants (top, down, left, right), which stood for Syria, Assyria and the north, Elam, and Babylonia – or, to use the ancient names, Amurru, Assyria and Subartu, Elam, and Akkad. The first quadrant touched by the umbra of the eclipse, indicates the direction where the threatened ruler lived.

The direction of the shadow offered a similar clue, although top, down, left, and right now stood for Babylonia, Elam, Assyria and Gutium (the east), and Syria.

There were supplementary systems, which offered some room for personal interpretation to the astrologer. First, the months of the year represented one of the four regions mentioned. For example, Simanu, Tašrîtu , and Šabatu corresponded with Syria. Then, the day of the eclipse, which can only be on the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of a lunar month, correspond to Babylonia, Elam, Syria, and Assyria/Subartu.

Some minor points: the moment of the eclipse (early evening, midnight, after midnight) represented the consequences of the end of the reign: plague, diminishing markets, or recovery. If Saturn was visible, the power of the celestial omen doubled; Jupiter, on the other hand, protected the king.

So, what does this mean for tonight’s lunar eclipse? I do not believe in astrology, but I was surprised to discover that the four systems indicate more or less the same, plausible outcome. The moon is first eclipsed at precisely the edge of the left and top quadrant: so that means that leaders in Elam and Syria are in peril. The umbra leaves the lunar disk in the eastern part, threatening Syria again.So, the main system indicates trouble in the west, allowing for problems in the east. Iraq itself is safe.

Using the supplementary systems, we get the same result. Tonight’s date, after sunset, is 14 Simanu: the day promises the end of the reign of a ruler in Elam, while the month represents, again, Syria. Jupiter is not visible, Saturn is; and as far as the time is concerned, we can say that in Iraq, the eclipse is more or less around midnight, so the markets will diminish.

If astrology were a science, this would mean that within a hundred days, a leader who lives in Syria or the west is in grave danger. Alternatively, and with a smaller likelihood, the leader of Elam is in trouble – modern Khuzestan or the east. Now I am not a prophet, but if Assad or Ahmedinejad will be forced to resign, I think there will indeed be a big panic on the stock markets.


Postscript, September 1, 2011

OK, it turns out that the eclipse referred to Khadaffi.

Kavar Bridge

1 April 2011

Kavar Bridge

The Sasanian bridge south of modern Kavar is not exactly Iran’s most important archaeological monument, but I had passed along it several times without properly visiting it, so last month, I decided to stop over here and take photos. I immediately discovered that this was a serious error: the road, which connects Shiraz to Firuzabad, is quite dangerous, and I do not recommend a visit. Look at the brief notice here instead.

Iranian Panoramas

22 March 2011

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…


… and the second one the great square of Isfahan, taken from the terrace of the Ali Qapu Palace. From left to right you can see the entrance to the bazaar, the Lotfollah Mosque, and the Shah Mosque.



19 March 2011
Photo Richard Kroes

The Aryan Body Building School in Sari

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”.

Persepolis 2011

19 March 2011

The Cyrus Cylinder in a Crystal Ball

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.


11 March 2011

One of the impressive walls

(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.

Takht-e Suleyman

8 March 2011

The lake

(News from Jona in Iran, relayed via Chicago:)

Takht-e Suleyman is an ancient Iranian fire sanctuary, close to a small salt lake. In its present form, the ruins are Sassanian with Mongol additions, but the sanctuary itself is much older. In the Middle Ages, it was believed to have been the birthplace of Zarathustra, the site where the three Magi for the first time worshipped a sacred fire, the palace where Solomon received the Queen of Sheba, or the fortress where Cyrus the Great stored the treasure of Croesus. Today, it is listed as world heritage on the UNESCO list.

It was about 150 kilometers from our hotel in Zanjan to Takht-e Suleyman, but the road, through an almost uninhabited country, turned out to be full of curves and the trip can easily take three hours — especially when it’s been snowing. On three places, the street was covered by avalanches, and we had to wait until Caterpillars had shoveled the snow away. We saw two wolves, which were looking at us, probably wondering how Dutchmen would taste.

The site itself was covered with a white blanket, and we saw several small twisters of snow, which made the ancient ruin look like a palace from a northern saga. The atmosphere became even more enchanting when the loudspeakers were used to broadcast several poems by Hafez. Often, we had to wade knee-deep through the snow, and we frequently slipped away on the muddy paths. Still, the lake, which was not covered with ice, was impressive and I got an idea that under different circumstances, the ruin should be quite spectacular. Other ruins are more interesting, but Takht-e Suleyman today offered more fun.

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+]

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.

Iwan-e Karkheh

14 September 2010

One of my colleagues, hiding behind her camera

Iwan-e Karkheh” is the modern name of the ruin of a Sasanian city, largely unexplored by archaeologists, founded by Shapur II after the sack of Susa. It was surrounded by a large wall that is still visible over large distances. The archaeologists also found a building, perhaps a palace, with a cross-vault of a type that was to become popular in churches but has not been attested earlier than Iwan-e Karkheh.

We were attracted to the site, which must have resembled Bishapur, because we had read that it had been converted into a garbage dump, and wanted to see it before it would be destroyed. But the site turned out to be not threatened at all. In all countries of the Near East, people throw away their waste along the roads. Garbage can be seen everywhere, and I have heard in both Syria and Iran the joke that it’s not garbage at all – the farmers are just cultivating plastics. Iwan-e Karkheh is not exceptionally dirty; in fact, it seems to be well protected by a nearby police post.

Your satellite photo is here and the new webpage is here.


10 July 2010

Hall of Hundred Columns

If I say that Persepolis has moved to this URL, you will understand that you have come across a new installment of the highly irregular and highly irrelevant series called Moving Livius.Org. Actually, it’s the last installment, because I’ve now moved all html-pages away from the /a/-directory, which means that html-pages and jpg-files are now separated. I can now move forward to a content management system and leave behind a website that is essentially still running on 1994 software.

It is fitting that Persepolis receives this place of honor, because it is one of the most splendid places in the world. It is of course a matter of taste, but I think most people will agree that it is more impressive than, for example, Palmyra, Petra, or Lepcis Magna.

Gate of All Nations

Persepolis is actually part of a larger archaeological complex that also includes Naqš-i Rustam, Naqš-e Rajab, Istakhr, and the little-known Takht-e Rostam. The best way to visit it, if you are a tourist, is to do those sites in the early morning; Naqš-i Rustam takes about two hours, Naqš-e Rajab half an hour, while the two other sites can be used to have a picknick. They are not of the greatest importance and you may in fact ignore them without having the idea that you’ve lost very much.

A sphinx

After lunch, go to Persepolis itself. In the afternoon, especially after, say, half past four, the light will be softer. A first introduction takes about four hours. Then you’ve seen most buildings and understand the site.

Now the big trick: you must return the next day. Until ten o’clock, the light will be fine, and because you now know the site, you can really appreciate it. At half past ten, you want to be away anyhow, because the tourist buses from Shiraz will arrive by that time. During my two last visits, we took a hotel in the Persepolis compound itself, which was perfect.

A Nubian

Of course you can stay longer, but this double visit will for most tourists be sufficient. For a specialist, however, there will always be something new to discover. Personally, I am increasingly interested in the Hellenistic objects found in and near Persepolis. Of course, Alexander did not destroy it all: that would be impossible with ancient technology. The Palace of Darius, for example, has survived pretty well. The main symbols of the Achaemenid court ritual, the Apadana and the Treasury, were what Alexander destroyed. In the museums, you will find several Hellenistic objects.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been in Persepolis, you should go to Iran. The Iranians will welcome you, as they have done for centuries. So my last picture today is a drawing by Cornelis de Bruijn, one of the first westerners to visit the site (and a fellow-Amsterdammer). The new webpages are here.

View from the north


24 May 2010

Tomb of Cyrus

I fondly remember my first visit to Pasargadae, the capital of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire. Although it was an amazing idea to be at the place where the great conqueror had actually lived, but the plain itself was what impressed me most. It still does. Although there’s a village next to it, it feels as if the place is terribly empty.

Our photos have been online since 2003. Much has improved since then. The road that made it possible to reach Gate R and Palace S by car, which created vibrations that threatened the monuments, has been removed (I remember a team of Afghan laborers, two summers ago, destroying the pavement with big hammers). Inexpert repairs to the tomb of Cyrus have been reverted, and in general, everything looks better than it used to.

It was about time to update my webpages. So here it is, and here are other links: Gate R, the bridge (small page), the audience hall in Palace S, the residential Palace P, the water works in the garden, the Zendan, the Tall-i Takht, and finally the tomb of Cyrus, with a rare photo of its interior. Plus: a reference to a cuneiform text that may be related to the destruction of the Tall-i Takht in 280. It doesn’t prove much – as always, there’s a lacuna where it shouldn’t be – but at least it’s probably worth a thought.

The Portrait of Artaxerxes II Mnemon

20 May 2010

Artaxerxes II

Achaemenid art was not very innovative. In the days of Darius I the Great, the basic forms were established, and later artists did not really change these patterns. A king was shown sitting on a throne (example), or killing an animal (example), or sacrificing (example). On seals, there is some variation, but essentially, the Achaemenid artists preferred to emulate good art instead of inventing something new.

As a consequence, they never invented the portrait, and all kings look like Darius, with the same beard. Until now, I knew only one representation of an Achaemenid king by an artist who wanted to show what the ruler really looked like: the portrait of Artaxerxes III Ochus in the Amsterdam Allard Piersonmuseum, made in Egypt. We may perhaps add the Darius III Codomannus on the Alexander mosaic, although I can hardly believe that the Greek painter whose design was used as a model, had really seen the great king.

In the Archaeological Museum of Antalya, I discovered another candidate: Artaxerxes II Mnemon is represented on the tomb of (probably) the Lycian leader Pericles of Limyra. Unfortunately, it is very damaged, but the man clearly has his tiara tied up so that it stands erect. You can also recognize the diadem. Did the sculptor really see the great king?