Persian art highlights shown in West for first time since Islamic revolution

Sunday, March 16, 2003

— He was the "king of this world." The inscription on a polished rock, referring to this title in the ancient wedge-shaped cuneiform writing system, recalls that almost 2,500 years ago Persia was the world's first superpower.

The black-green, 22-pound rock, describing the role of Darius the Great in extending Persian rule to the boundaries of the ancient world on three continents, is among 180 artifacts shown in the first major exhibition of Persian art treasures touring the West since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The show, titled "7,000 Years of Persian Art," primarily consists of loans from the Iranian National Museum in Tehran. Exhibits range from prehistoric crude pottery to elaborate bronzes and ornate gold and silver objects from royal treasures in the centuries preceding the Arab conquest in 651. Some of the finds were made only during recent excavations.

At the festive opening in Basel's Antiquities Museum, Franz von Daeniken, secretary of state in the Swiss Foreign Ministry, said the exhibition attested to his country's "good partnership with Iran."

The director of the Iranian National Museum, Mohammad Reza Kargar, said he hoped it would help to promote peace and friendship and dialogue among civilizations. There was no reference in the opening statements to Washington's branding of Iran as one of the rogue countries in the "axis of evil." Switzerland takes care of American interests in Iran.


The oldest exhibit is a tiny crude clay figurine of a woman holding a child, dated to the late seventh millennium B.C.

Less than an inch high and recognizable only through a magnifying lens, it is one of a series of female minisculptures of ancient fertility cults.

Pottery was also a major form of art in ancient Iran, the items typically painted with geometric patterns or animals. Another highlight of the show is an impressive array of the so-called Luristan bronzes, including ornate ceremonial axes and horses' bridling gear, made by metalworkers in the first millennium B.C. in Western Iran.

Persian art flourished after Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid dynasty in 550 B.C. by uniting various tribes. He formed an empire that, under Darius less than 100 years later, spread from the Danube to the Nile and to the Indian subcontinent.

A few clay tablets in ancient writing give visitors an idea of the imperial bureaucracy at the capital. A huge administrative archive contained tens of thousands of moist clay tablets, chiefly bills and other bookkeeping records.


AP Photo

Artifacts are displayed in the Basel, Switzerland Antiquities Museum. The show "7,000 years of Persian Art" comprises chiefly loans from the Iranian National Museum in Tehran.

Many crumbled into dust. Ironically, a large part survived because they were unintentionally fired when Persepolis was burned down by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. His conquest of Persia ended Achaemenid rule.

Awakening fascination

Exhibits from subsequent Persian dynasties, the Parthians and the Sasanians, include a stone relief of Heracles (Hercules), the hero of Greek mythology who was renowned for his enormous physical strength.

Alexander, who brought Persia under strong Greek cultural influence, is known to have worshipped him. The Sasanian kings, who battled Romans, Arabs and Huns in seeking to restore Persia's imperial role, also introduced a new rich period of artistry with exquisite jewelry and metalwork in fine gold, silver and bronze.

Basel is the latest stop for the exhibition's tour which began in Vienna, Austria, and included Rome, the Belgian city of Ghent and Bonn, Germany. It has so far attracted more than a quarter of a million visitors.

It moves to Spain this summer. In a foreword to the catalog, Peter Blome, head of the Basel museum, writes somewhat deploringly that since the 1979 revolution, the West has come to see Iran increasingly as an Islamic state rather than as the heir of a multifaceted cultural history spanning thousands of years.

He said it is hoped that the exhibition, which ends June 29, would once again awaken European fascination with ancient Persian culture.