New men making a mark in an old world

Persia and the West
April 27, 2001

How much does Persepolis's art owe to Greece? asks Carl Nylander.

This is an exciting and important book for the specialist but also for a wider circle of readers. Here is the penetrant, elegantly relaxed thought of one of the most versatile and learned Classical archaeologists of our time: an insightful discourse on a fascinating, intricate art-historical situation, and the long wished-for, critical and fair synthesis of the partly iconoclastic work of an entire generation of Near Eastern and Classical archaeologists. Its author, Sir John Boardman, emeritus professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford, has spent a lifetime studying Greek art, acquiring an unrivalled mastery documented in numerous publications on architecture and sculpture as well as on vase painting and metalwork, seals, gems and jewellery. He has also reflected deeply on the essence of Greekness and on its unique power to spread and to inspire far away from its small source area in his classic The Greeks Overseas , and his masterful The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity (1993) covering the ancient world from India to the Atlantic. No one could be better qualified to discuss Persia and the West.

Around 550BC, the young Persian people under Cyrus of the Achaemenid dynasty rode into world history from their Iranian highlands, conquering, in less than 30 years, the ancient Near East from India to Egypt and Ionia. New men in an old world, sudden inheritors of the power and prestige of age-old empires, they were now expected to equal or outshine the numinous royal splendour of the past. Thus the great kings Cyrus and Darius had to create their own monumental art to advocate their vision of the world and of themselves as rulers of the greatest empire so far seen. Boardman's well-illustrated and richly footnoted book discusses, in three substantial chapters on architecture, sculpture and "genesis and function", the complex problems of the birth of the splendid, last art system of the ancient Near East as embodied by Cyrus's capital Pasargadae, Darius's great victory monument in the cliff of Behistun, the palatial site of Susa and, above all, ceremonial Persepolis and its royal necropolis Naqsh-i Rustam. There is also an extensive discussion of "other arts": seals, metalwork, jewellery, ivory, painting, textiles and rugs, important vehicles for the spread of central ideology and court style over the vast realm, reflecting the complex and creative tensions between imperial centre and satrapal periphery.

The long history of research on Achaemenid art is a story not only of palatial projects, royal art and foreign craftsmen, of motifs, influences and borrowings, of techniques, styles and imperial iconography, but also of passionate academic dialectics concerning issues of Orientalism, Hellenocentricity and, nowadays, even of Persocentricity. The visitor to the Persian sites is struck by the eclectic nature of art and architecture. There are the numerous echoes of the divine winged discs, the huge, bearded guardian bulls and other monsters, the sculpted friezes and the glazed tiles of Assyro-Babylonia, of Egypt's pharaonic baldachinos, ceremonial doors and lotus patterns, of the bases and soaring columns of the great Ionic temples, of the colour play of Urartian masonry and the royal ceremonies of the old Near Eastern courts.

Yet much is new: an extensive, refined use of worked stone never seen in the Near Eastern mud-brick world, huge hypostyle halls and multi-columned porticoes with the richest capitals of ancient architecture and finely carved, solemnly repetitious processions of hundreds of soldiers, courtiers and peoples of the empire reverently converging around the great king on his throne or supporting him when adoring the holy fire of the supreme god Ahuramazda. Dramatically different from the terrors and triumphs extolled by their Assyrian and Egyptian predecessors - yet this peaceful and dignified palatial art was obviously the result, at least partly, of systematic quotations from the royal and artistic traditions of the long Near Eastern past.

There has rarely been agreement on how to look at this hybrid art, sumptuous, technically refined and filled with a subdued emotion, yet not without a taste of tedium. It does not have the linear beauty and human richness of Egyptian art nor the grandiose, passionate furia of the Assyrian stone tableaux of war and hunting. It seems to lack nerve and verve: monotonous, repetitive and unchanging through its 200 years of existence. "It is the same, and the same again, and yet again." (Lord Curzon.) Such eclectic, unspontaneous and static art could find little favour with modern scholars who, instead, long concentrated on its becoming rather than its being, by investigating the sources of its many inspirations.

There was little difficulty in agreeing on the Near Eastern background of much of this art. There was more or less acrimonious debate, on the other hand, between the Near Eastern and Classical disciplines as to a Greek contribution to Achaemenid art, entirely negated by many orientalists but given great importance by Classical archaeologists, traditionally experts on problems of style. The stage was set in 1946 for half a century of vital dialectics with the article "Greeks in Persia" by Gisela M. A. Richter, chief curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and an authority on Greek sculpture. She argued that Greek artists had played a leading role in Persia and that Achaemenid art, marked by a "frozen Greek style", was basically "provincial Greek art where a certain foreign element is noticeable". Here, it seemed, was an authoritative last word on an old issue.

Iran had become important after the second world war. While the French had long been active at Susa, the early 1960s saw the creation of the British Institute of Persian Studies and the German Archaeological Institute in Teheran, and Italians, Belgians, Americans and Canadians initiated Iranian projects. A new generation of young scholars entered the field with interdisciplinary inclinations to break out of rigid academic boundaries between the Classical and Near Eastern disciplines and, in a period of dramatic decolonisation, to question traditionally occidentalistic and Hellenocentric views of Persia.

Achaemenid studies began to flourish. New field work, above all David Stronach's important excavations at Pasargadae, Italian activity at Persepolis and French at Susa, but also at Median, Elamite, Mannaean and Urartian sites in Iran, enriched knowledge of pre-Achaemenid architecture. In Turkey, American excavations at the Lydian capital Sardis, Cyrus's first great conquest, revealed important links to Pasargadae. Dating methods were refined, monuments were documented, cuneiform inscriptions and archives published or restudied, Babylonian and Greek sources reevaluated. A new endeavour to understand Achaemenid art on its own terms produced re-evaluations of its disparaged eclecticism, not any longer as soulless copying, but positively as part of a politico-religious programme extolling, by means of significant "quotations" from art from the main parts of the empire, a kind of "commonwealth ideology" extolling willing participation radically different from the old Assyro-Babylonian subjection and terror.

As to the Greeks, Boardman elucidates and strengthens with new observations a fundamental Lydian and east Greek background to the early, fine Achaemenid masonry of Pasargadae and to various technical and artistic features, especially at Pasargadae. Yet he rejects as "absurd" any view of all this as "provincial Greek art" and discards speculations of a Greek as "grandmaster of the Persepolis friezes". He stresses instead a Persian osmosis of the many influences and of the fundamental role in the creation, in the late 6th century, of the classic, now wholly and fully Achaemenid court style of the "individual taste of an unnamed designer of high imagination and absolute authority" in Darius's immediate environment.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 made fieldwork in Iran temporarily impossible. Scholars now stayed home at their desks, discussed in Achaemenid workshops, thought and wrote on all aspects of Achaemenid history and culture. This meant increased interest, not least in the minor arts, in particular the important, ubiquitous and expressive seals and sealings found everywhere from India to Europe: a promising field to which Boardman has made important pioneering contributions.

Thanks to the work of British scholars such as Stronach, Michael Roaf, Amelie Kuhrt, David Lewis and Boardman and to that of colleagues and friends of many nations, the past 40 years of Persian studies, have shifted Achaemenid Iran firmly from the periphery to the central agenda of the disciplines of archaeology and ancient history. Of all this work, Boardman's rich book gives a thoughtful and fair synthesis and, at the same time, a wealth of fine observations and new problems to ponder. Where Richter in 1946 saw mostly "Greeks in Persia", Boardman now instead, wisely and rightly, points in the opposite direction to the important and historically more fruitful issue of "Persia and the West".

Carl Nylander is professor of Classical and Near Eastern archaeology and emeritus director of the Swedish Institute of Classical Studies in Rome.

Persia and the West: An Archaeological Investigation of the Genesis of Achaemenid Art

Author - John Boardman
ISBN - 0 500 05102
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £36.00
Pages - 255

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