"Persia: Fragments Of Paradise" was arranged in collaboration with the Iranian Embassy in Mexico and comprises items from Tehran's national museum. It seems quite topical, coinciding with the March 23 screening in Mexico of the already polemical film "300," which many Iranians complain paints a negative picture of ancient Persians.
Most items in the exhibition are household items -- bowls, pottery, gold, and silverware. They reveal both the long history of sedentary living on the Iranian plateau and a love of home and domestic activities: eating, drinking, and serving -- the essential components of social life in the Middle East.
Notable items include a finger-sized "Venus Of Sarab" from the western Kermanshah Province -- a terracotta figurine with bulbous thighs and breasts dating from around 6,000 B.C.
The National Anthropology Museum exhibition shows another Iranian civilization: one that is humane and fonder of idyllic pastures, home, and the luxuries of daily life than of war.
Another terracotta item is a large, but fine bowl from Esmailabad near Qazvin, west of Tehran, dated 5,000 B.C. and painted with a constellation of rhomboid motifs.
A nearby section displays several earthenware bowls from around 1,000 B.C, found in several sites in Gilan, northern Iran. These are vessels with humanoid and animalistic features: human legs or elongated spouts suggesting bird beaks.
Animal and floral motifs recur in all the artistic periods encompassed by the show. This might be surprising, as relatively few Iranians today have household pets. The importance of animals may be due to the nomadic origins of Iranians and their constant contact with nature.
Lions, gazelles, birds, and bulls abound. Bull heads are a favored feature, whether as handles on silver jugs; on conical drinking vessels known as rhytons; or, in giant dimensions, as capitals on the hundreds of columns supporting the ceilings at Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persian kings from the 5th to the late 4th centuries B.C.
The World Of Ancient Persepolis
The Mexico exhibition also has video displays to provide background information. A large screen shows a computer-generated reconstruction of buildings and ceremonies at Persepolis, revealing what stones and photographs might not: the feel of the place in its hey-day.
Persepolis was a gigantic complex begun in the late 6th century B.C, built over generations, and burned down in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great. An announcer on the video reads out, in ancient Persian with Spanish subtitles, the lines on a silver plaque found at Persepolis, reporting the inauguration of the palace under Darius I. It is likely the first time many museum-goers have heard the sounds of the ancient Persian language.
To help Mexicans contextualize the displays in historical terms, large posters provide a simultaneous chronology of historical developments in Mexico and Iran.
The posters show that wheat was being cultivated in Iran in 5,000 B.C. and corn in Mexico about the same time. But the chronologies also show that while sedentary living developed synchronously in these distant lands, civilization -- or systematic government over large areas -- sped ahead in the Middle East.
Mexico And The Middle East
Many of Mexico's pre-Columbian cities flourished from the time of the Roman Empire onward. The exception is the Olmec civilization -- the earliest large-scale civilization of central America, which left behind some colossal sculpted heads in the state of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico. The religion and mythology of the Olmecs, who coincided broadly with the Assyrians in the 9th century B.C., then the Medes and Achaemenid dynasties, set the cultural tone and worldview for subsequent civilizations in Mexico.
The next leading city of ancient Mexico, Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, began to develop at about the time of Persepolis, when many cities and empires had already come and gone in the Near East. The Mayan city-states -- now a collection of fantastic ruins punctuating the jungles of southern Mexico and central America -- are relatively "modern."
The Mayan peak era coincided with the advent of Islam, the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, the 11th Seljuk Turks, and even the early Ottomans in Anatolia or the Safavids in Persia. The Aztecs flourished from the 14th to the 16th centuries, when Persian civilization, pulverized by the Mongols and by Tamerlane, was, in many respects, in decline.
Two Sides To Every Story
No doubt many of the thousands of visitors, including schoolchildren, who have seen the exhibition will soon see the film "300," which depicts, with somewhat extravagant imagery, the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C, when 300 Spartans led by one of their kings, Leonidas, defended a pass against a much larger Persian army of King Xerxes I.
The film has upset many Iranians, including the Iranian government, for its presentation of the ancient Persians as grotesque and decadent. Had he lived, the New-York based Palestinian academic Edward Said might have termed the film a perfect example of the Western vice he examined in his book "Orientalism" -- a distorted vision of the East as essentially different, impervious to reason and moderation, and threatening.
The National Anthropology Museum exhibition shows another Iranian civilization: one that is humane and fonder of idyllic pastures, home, and the luxuries of daily life than of war. The multinational empire of the Achaemenids brought peace to the Middle East for two centuries.
Another legacy of Persia is its institution of a particular vision of monarchy: the universal monarchy, featuring a single and uniquely legitimate monarch. It was a concept that was an enduring part of the monarchical principle throughout European history, and eagerly espoused by Persia's political heirs: Alexander, the Seleucids, the emperors of Byzantium, the Hapsburgs, and the Romanovs.
"Persia: Fragments Of Paradise" was due to end on March 25, but was extended until April 22.