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The Persian Empire Strikes Back Volume 59 Number 1, January/February 2006
by Michael Seymour

For two millennia, the memory of the sprawling Asian, African, and European empire built by the Persian Achaemenid dynasty between 550 and 330 B.C. has depended largely on the writings of its enemies--ancient Greek accounts of decadence and despotism. "Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia," a traveling exhibition currently at the British Museum, aims to present the empire on its own terms, bringing together Persian collections from the British Museum, the Louvre, the Persepolis Museum, and the National Museum of Iran. The collaboration has resulted in a unique opportunity for museum visitors, not least because this is the first time many of the artifacts have been outside Iran.

The largest section focuses on the palace architecture of Persepolis, the capital of the empire, while others highlight gold and silver tableware and jewelry. These elite and prestige objects are intended to highlight the forgotten importance of the empire in world political and cultural history. In particular, the ancient Greek image of Persians as oppressors is challenged: Achaemenid cultural tolerance is emphasized, and one strength of the exhibition is its clarity in explaining, through objects, the empire's complex mix of people and languages. Figures on late-nineteenth-century casts of reliefs from Persepolis, for example, are used to describe the cultural and ethnic diversity of the empire, while the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, famous for recording the end of the Israelite captivity in Babylon, takes pride of place in the final room. (A part of the British Museum's collection, the cylinder will be loaned to the National Museum of Iran at the end of the tour.)

The exhibition is also remarkable for how openly it acknowledges current political realities. Its own message is a positive one, on the benefits of Western and Iranian institutions working together. In his foreward to the excellent, if academic, exhibition catalog, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, writes that the Achaemenid Empire itself has great contemporary relevance. "In its acknowledgement of cultural differences within one coherent and effective state," he says, "it is perhaps more than ever a proper object of admiration and study." The exhibition will encourage both.

"Forgotten Empire" is at the British Museum until January 8, 2006. In February, it travels to La Caixa in Barcelona, and eventually goes to Japan.

Michael Seymour is a doctoral research student at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America