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Still, it is better if they sell ugly objects and outdated books than nothing at all.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.


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+]


15 March 2009
The tell, seen from the west

The tell, seen from the west

The Bronze Age city of Anšan lies northwest of modern Shiraz. With a car, you reach Tall-e Malyan (its modern name) in an hour. I was impressed by the fertility of the wide valley that was once dominated by this city, which was the capital of a kingdom that was sufficiently powerful to be known to the scribes of ancient Babylonia. They called it URU an-ša-an. Dozens of towns appear to have to obeyed the ruler of this city: in 2000, seventy-seven other settlements were known from this valley alone.

All of these belonged to the third millennium, and that is why the discovery of Tall-e Malyan in 1971 was a sensation: it suggested that the growth of urban life (“the rise of civilization”) was not an isolated phenomenon in Iraq, but took place in a much wider area. This idea has in the meantime been corroborated by the excavations in Jiroft and the Burnt City.

Judging from its ceramics, Anšan was founded in c.5000 BCE and destroyed by a great fire in the Middle Elamite period. That the sixth-century authors of the Nabonidus Chronicle and Cyrus Cylinder still identify Cyrus the Great with the title “king of Anšan” does not prove that the town was still/again alive in the sixth century: it is one of those archaisms that are so often used in Babylonian literature (cf. the third millennium names “Gutium” for all countries in the east and “Hanaeans” for Macedonians).

Today, the low hill lies more or less abandoned, although thousands of sherds prove that this must have been a major city once. I spotted one big, artificially cut stone that may or may not have been part of a large wall. The part that has been excavated is now used as a garbage dump.