Saturday, September 24, 2005

Iran responds to anti-Achaemenid article

In a letter to the editor, Iranian archaeologist Abbas Alizadeh has sharply criticized the author of the recent Guardian article ?The evil empire? for his bias and negative attitude toward the Persian Empire, MNA reported.

The article, written by Jonathan Jones, was published on September 10, two days after the opening day of the exhibition Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, which runs until January 8, 2006 at the British Museum in London.

Alizadeh is the director of the Iranian Prehistoric Project at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Following is the text of his letter to the editor, which was published in the British daily on September 19:

Reading Mr. Jonathan Jones article, The evil empire, in your reputable newspaper (Guardian - 9/10/05) one is left with the feeling that Mr. Jones knows very little, if any, about history, art history, and archaeology. In fact, on a par with the title of the article, he immediately reveals his political agenda in his first paragraph and continues his political ramble in a thinly wrapped critique of the British Museum?s ongoing exhibition of Persian Achaemenid Forgotten Empire. Lest readers may be ambiguous about Persia, he duly reminds them that it is the same as Iran.

This is unfortunate because at this critical time when the polarization of the world is increasingly becoming nasty, ugly, and dangerous, Mr. Jones article would simply serve as fodder to the attitude that in part has been responsible for todays geopolitical quagmire we are witnessing now.

Mr. Jones primary source of information to bash Persian Achaemenids -- and by extension the East -- seems to be Herodotus. First, the Greeks, as Jones claims, did not invent history. History is a process. In his monumental work, The Persian Wars, Herodotus invented historical narrative, peppered with an attempt to explain historical events by appealing both to divine intervention and logic.

It is important to remember that Herodotus spent most of his time in Athens and wrote his book for the Greeks, and certainly with Athenian bias.

While Herodotus book has historical value, most of his narrative consists of hearsay. To the Greeks, everybody was a barbarian, including the Macedonians and their upstart leaders, Philip and his son Alexander, who destroyed Greek city-states, robbed the Greeks of their cherished freedom, and frustrated the rapid development of Greek civilization.

Prior to the mid-fifth century B.C., the heart of Greek intellectual achievement was not in mainland Greece but in their former colonies on the eastern Mediterranean coast. These internally independent colonies constituted the westernmost part of the Achaemenid Empire. What other colonial power could claim the development of a superb civilization in its colonies on their watch This is not (meant) to (be) an accolade for colonialism, which throughout history, particularly from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, caused unspeakable atrocities around the world. The flourishing of Greek philosophy, mathematics, and geometry, to name a few, was made possible perhaps because the Persian Achaemenids, the baddies and original villains of Mr. Jones, were a tolerant nation and civilized enough to appreciate and respect cultures and nations other than their own.

While Darius I was busy improving the infrastructure of his empire by building highways, establishing postal service, digging a canal connecting the Nile to the Red Sea, regulating measures and weight for commerce, to name a few, Alexander kept himself busy conquering and plundering one nation after another until his death.

But the greatest contribution of the Persian Achaemenids was the preservation and development of the millennia-old ancient Near Eastern civilization they inherited. This brings us to Mr. Jones childish criticism of formal Persian art. Mr. Jones does not understand that ancient Near Eastern art is defined by a set of conventions that developed in the course of thousands of years, and that the Persians preserved and improved upon it. Movement, portraiture, frontal views and overlapping figures, as Mr. Jones claims, are not necessarily strong criteria to judge formal, monumental art and architecture. These characteristics can, however, be found in the minor art of the Persian Achaemenids, particularly in the gold work and utilitarian objects and glyptic.

While the British Museum is admirably trying to acknowledge the past achievements of a modern nation and thereby create an amicable atmosphere of good will, Mr. Jones attitude in his article has blinded him to deny the achievements of an empire that existed 2500 years ago. His political agenda, on the other hand, has led him to vilify an ancient nation and by extension the modern-day nation of Iran.

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