Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Persia's kings are history's great villains. Does the British Museum's show do them justice? By Jonathan Jones

Guardian:The title of this exhibition is a bit misleading. Forgotten Empire, the British Museum calls its spectacular resurrection of ancient Persia. Yet the Persians are as notorious in their way as Darth Vader, the Sheriff of Nottingham, General Custer, or any other embodiment of evil empire you care to mention. They are history's original villains.
In its day, which lasted from the middle of the 500s BC until the defeat of Darius III by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, the Persian empire ruled a vast portion of the then-known world from the Nile to the Indus. It connected the Mediterranean with modern Afghanistan. Rich beyond dreams, powerful beyond dispute, the great kings ruled from their mighty palaces at Susa and Persepolis, tolerating the religions and cultures of subject peoples and harvesting the creativity of near eastern civilisation that had already, before they came along, invented writing and urban life. It should have been enough to earn them historical immortality....
So why was I disappointed? I was left flat - not by the superb show but by the Persian empire itself. The British Museum wants us to believe Persia was traduced by the Greeks. It wants to show us an alternative Persia from the evil empire vilified by Hellenic historians. Yet everything confirms this Greek "myth" of a supremely rich, powerful, bureaucratically faceless empire. The real difference between the Greek version and the version we get here is that the Greeks made the Persians glamorous in their villainy.


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