Rewriting victors' view of Persian history

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An early reference to Alexander of Macedon is the first hint of where the British Museum is heading in its new exhibition, "Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia." After all, to Persians then and Iranians now, there was nothing great about the Alexander who crushed the largest empire the world had yet known. Indeed, his burning of Persepolis in 331 B.C. was considered an act of vandalism.

But the show, which runs through Jan. 8, goes further, challenging the version of history that ancient Greece, starting with Herodotus, bequeathed to the West. Put simply, in that version Greece heroically resisted the marauding barbarians from the east during the Persian wars of 490 B.C. to 479 B.C. Then, by defeating the Achaemenid empire, as it was also known, the "West" scored its first important victory over the "East."

It is this victors' account, then, that the British Museum has set out to "correct." By presenting some 450 ancient objects, from stone reliefs and lapis lazuli heads to gold statuettes and jewelry, it aims to blur the political fault lines that have long separated East and West and give ancient Persia its proper place - between Assyria and Babylon on the one hand and Greece and Rome on the other - in the chronology of early civilizations.

In that sense, "Forgotten Empire" is also highly topical.

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