Christo­pher Allen and Pub­lic Works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christo­pher Allen Hos­sein Vala­manesh: Char Soo Sam­stag Mu­seum, Ade­laide. Un­til De­cem­ber 4.

The Per­sians tend to be cast in the bad role in an­cient his­tory, as the ori­en­tal su­per­power that tried and failed to crush the Greeks at the be­gin­ning of the 5th cen­tury BC — even though in Jewish his­tory they ap­pear as lib­er­a­tors, re­leas­ing the peo­ple of Is­rael from Baby­lo­nian cap­tiv­ity at the end of the 6th cen­tury and al­low­ing them to re­turn to their home­land.

Of course this lib­er­a­tion was only rel­a­tive, since the Jews con­tin­ued to live un­der the rule of the Great King. The trou­ble with the Greeks was that they had a dif­fer­ent, much more rad­i­cal and ul­ti­mately new con­cep­tion of lib­erty — an ob­sti­nate de­ter­mi­na­tion to gov­ern them­selves in sub­servience to no for­eign power.

Read­ing Herodotus’s ac­count of the Per­sian Wars, two things are strik­ing. One is that the author does not de­monise the Per­sians: he is will­ing to ad­mire cer­tain as­pects of their cul­ture or to recog­nise the gen­eros­ity of Dar­ius’s be­hav­iour on var­i­ous oc­ca­sions. Xenophon’s later Cy­ropae­dia gives an even more pos­i­tive ac­count of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the em­pire and al­ready dis­cussed at length by Herodotus.

But just as strik­ing is the im­pres­sion of the fierce­ness of the Greek city states, tiny as they were in com­par­i­son with the vast­ness of the em­pire they op­posed. In the rest of their ori­en­tal do­min­ions, the Per­sians had had to con­quer lo­cal sov­er­eigns and war­lords but not whole pop­u­la­tions, for whom a change of master made lit­tle dif­fer­ence to a life of un­re­lent­ing labour.

It must have been al­most in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to en­counter peo­ples who were not only at­tached to their free­dom but will­ing to fight and die for it. The Athe­ni­ans, out­num­bered al­most 10 to 1, de­feated the Per­sian army at Marathon in 490BC, and then the Greeks over­came a far greater in­va­sion by land and sea un­der Xerxes in 480BC. A cen­tury and a half later, Alexan­der the Great con­quered the Per­sian em­pire, unit­ing east and west from Greece to Pak­istan.

Al­though they may fig­ure, in sim­plis­tic ac­counts of this pe­riod, as a face­less ori­en­tal su­per­power, the Per­sians were in re­al­ity far less for­eign than the Turks who later men­aced Europe and the Mediter­ranean area for cen­turies. They were in fact Indo-Euro­peans whose lan­guage was re­lated to San­skrit, Greek and Latin, and even Ger­man — a fact that struck the first mod­ern Euro­pean schol­ars who be­gan to learn it in the 16th cen­tury.

Af­ter the fall of the western Ro­man em­pire in the 5th cen­tury, Per­sia and the Greek-speak­ing east­ern em­pire whose cap­i­tal was Con­stantino­ple were caught in a de­struc­tive cy­cle of wars, weak­en­ing both in the pe­riod be­fore the rise of Is­lam and the Arab con­quests in the 7th cen­tury. The Byzan­tine em­pire lost most of its ter­ri­tory to the in­vad­ing Arabs, but held on to its heart­land; Per­sia was con­quered and forcibly con­verted to the new re­li­gion.

But the Per­sians had a far longer and deeper his­tory of civil­i­sa­tion than the tribal Arabs — af­ter a mil­len­nium of di­a­logue with Greece, In­dia and even China — and it is not sur­pris­ing that so many of the great Is­lamic schol­ars of the en­su­ing pe­riod were Per­sian. Even the Ara­bian Nights emerged from a core of Per­sian sto­ry­telling, as the name of the hero­ine Scheherazade (or Shahrazad) re­minds us.

Above all, al­though the Per­sians adopted the Ara­bic al­pha­bet, they re­sisted the cul­tural im- pe­ri­al­ism of the lan­guage it­self, main­tain­ing and de­vel­op­ing their own into what be­came the lin­gua franca of courtly life and po­lit­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion from Turkey to Mughal In­dia. Hamid Dabashi has re­cently stressed the open-minded spirit of the Per­sian tra­di­tion in his book The World of Per­sian Lit­er­ary Hu­man­ism (Har­vard, 2012). Great au­thors such as Rumi, Saadi, Hafez and Omar Khayyam are an in­valu­able part of the great fam­ily of Indo-Euro­pean lit­er­a­ture.

This is why Iran to­day is such an in­ter­est­ing case: it is one of the few na­tions in the Is­lamic world in which a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion has a so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand­ing of the mod­ern and sec­u­lar world, al­though they are for the time be­ing liv­ing un­der an ul­tra-con-

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