When was Persia at its height

Culture : Persia Exhibition: Tolerance in the Achaemenid Empire

Herodotus was not particularly fond of the Persians: "They are very devoted to wine, but it is not appropriate to vomit or knock off one's water in the presence of others," writes the Greek father of all historians. No people are so prone to "being foreigners as the Persians. Whenever they hear of foreign follies and vices, they must imitate them right away." And the Greeks had every reason to rail against the Persians, because 480 BC. Their great king Xerxes invaded their country with a huge force. 2500 years later, Europe's image of Persia is still shaped by the perspective of Greece. The old Persians appear as the Huns of antiquity: as an Asian threat. Not even the original names of their rulers are familiar to most of them. We call them Dareios, Cyrus or Xerxes - Greek adaptations of Darajavausch, Kurusch and Chschajarscha. The capital Parsa became Persepolis.

The "7000 Years of Persian Art" exhibition, which opened yesterday in Bonn's Kunsthalle, could change a few things about the clouded occidental image. The show attracted a lot of attention in Vienna last year, and later moved on to Rome. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran is now showing treasures from the Tehran National Museum abroad.

The art-historical arc ranges from the earliest stone idols from the seventh millennium BC to glass vessels from the early Islamic period of the seventh century AD. An immense period of time that is barely comprehensible today. Especially when you consider that the European Middle Ages, which are so far away from us, were only a thousand years ago and the Roman Empire was at its peak two thousand years ago. Wenzel Jacob, the director of the Bundeskunsthalle, also admits that this enormous setting gave him a lot of headache at the Bonn presentation.

But the result proves the risk to be right. And the concentration exclusively on the finest artefacts leaves no room for boredom while jumping from epoch to epoch. There are no overcrowded showcases here, and numerous exhibits are displayed as precious solitaires in individual showcases, which make it possible to view the work from all sides.

The exhibition is supplemented with fascinating aerial photos of all important Iranian archaeological sites - but without current recordings. From 1976 to 1978, shortly before the revolution, the Swiss photographer Georg Gerster had the opportunity to photograph Iran from the air in over a hundred flights.

Unraveling worldviews are not to be expected from the Bonn show, but a fairer view of a finely balanced culture of tolerance in an empire that has long been considered a shaky multiethnic state, but was in fact a stable multicultural system. The Persian conquerors, who stamped the first world empire in history out of the steppe floor in the middle of the sixth century BC under the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus the Great, respected the culture and religion of the subjugated peoples. The great king appeared as pharaoh in Egypt, and in Babylonia he was venerated as the successor of Hammurabi. Life in the conquered countries continued as usual. Only the taxes had to flow to the officials in the royal residences on time.

The Persian empire of the Achaemenids (558 - 331 BC) stood in the tradition of the ancient high cultures of Mesopotamia. Historians refer to the three empires - the ancient Persian of the Achaemenids, the Parthian Empire (247 BC - 224 AD) and finally that of the Sassanids (224 - 651) - as the last ancient oriental civilization in the area.

Greeks, Romans and Byzantines often fought with their neighbors in the east, or he with them. During his conquests, Xerxes (486 - 465) advanced to the gateway to the heart of Greece - and got a bloody nose in the sea battle of Salamis 480. Salamis and, one year later, Plataiai - battles that Greek tradition exaggerated into a victorious struggle for life and death. Herodotus' history in particular, which was written about 60 years after this campaign, has had a lasting impact on our image of the Achaemenids. But for Persia - in contrast to Greece - this war was by no means about existential questions. For Xerxes the skirmishes were on the far edge of his empire, which stretched from the Balkans to Central Asia.

150 years later it was different. Alexander the Great set out from Macedonia in 334 to cut off the feet of clay from the colossus in the east. He also used propaganda. He wanted to take revenge for the Persian aggression, the memory of which was still very much present in the Greek world of small states. Soft, oriental decadent - it was Alexander himself who seemed to confirm this derogatory prejudice about the Persians. Within a few years he turned the empire off its hinges and put his short-lived empire in its place.

After the turn of the century, other empires faced each other on the border with Asia, but both were shaped by their respective predecessors: the Roman Empire in the west and the Parthian Empire in the east. People didn't make love, but mostly practiced peaceful coexistence. Because of the trade. The Parthians dominated Roman trade with China with the Silk Road and defended this lucrative mediator role. When the Emperor of China tried to negotiate directly with his Roman counterpart, the Parthians lied in the interests of the raison d'etre. The Chinese ambassador, who was standing on the Persian Gulf in AD 97, inquiring about transport options to Rome, was told that the trip would take three years. Discouraged, the envoy gave up.

But back to Bonn: The tour of the exhibition ends with the early Islamic era. One of the first Iranian Koran manuscripts from the 9th / 10th centuries. Century releases the visitor into the present. Of course, a cut was needed somewhere. But wasn't an opportunity missed to paint the image of a culturally rich and tolerant Islam in view of the increasing problems of understanding between the Occident and the Orient? "In two or three years there will be a sequel to the present day," promises the director of the Tehran National Museum, Mohammad-Reza Kargar.

Iranians are proud of their ancestral heritage. "Our people have always been open to outside influences," says Kargar. "But he managed to preserve his own culture over the millennia." Even the current Iranian language is still the old Parsi in its basics.

The Iranian museum director understands it all the less when the radical co-religionists in Afghanistan, the Taliban, blow up their cultural heritage. In Bonn, Kargar criticized the destruction of two monumental old Buddha statues in the valley of Bamiyan last March. "It was one of the bitterest events of the past ten years. These works belong to all of humanity." The tolerance of the ancient Achaemenid Empire can still be heard here.

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