I believe that society should prioritize the present, the future and the past in exactly that order. I am put off by some of my own fellow citizens who consistently harbour back to our ancient past at every crossroads to leisurely forgo the much more challenging path of dealing with present realities and planning future possibilities.
Try conversing with them about the answers for today and you will only hear of the glories of two and a half thousand years ago.
* Mention poverty: and you are told of: The great wealth in our Persepolis Treasury
* Human rights: Invented by Cyrus on his Cylinder
* Traffic jams: The crisscrossing roads of Cyrus and Darius
* Instability on our border with Iraq: The swift invasion of Babylon
* Tourism: The tribute procession bas-reliefs
* Visas & Immigration: Did you know we used to own the world?
* The Internet and e-mail: Our postal system was very fast
...ok perhaps that's going too far!
But I think most Iranians reading this know the attitude I am referring to. Maybe we did invent paradise but many of us haven't come back down to earth yet. We are all too eager to close our eyes to the present and dream of a past which may or may not have been. How our ancient Kings would have disapproved of such excessive and lavish escapism at the expense of much needed attention to the here and now.
So, the question is, at the present time, do we really need an exhibition about our Achaemenid ancestors? Well, I believe we do. The reason is that this exhibition doesn't focus on the pomp and circumstance of the empire, as it is far easy to do with the Achaemenids, but tries to get to the essence of the dynasty's principles and motives, its raison d'être. All too frequently the Achaemenid dynasty is characterized only by the golden wealth of its treasury, the splendour of its palaces and its military prowess.
But their main legacy according to Shahrokh Razmjou, is that "they showed the world how an empire should be ruled."
Shahrokh Razmjou, is a curator at the Tehran National Museum, and has helped to organize the exhibits in London.
"The Achaemenids displayed a sense of religious tolerance, a respect for people of other nations to practice their own cultures and keep their own customs, a kind of code for human rights. Far from the image portrayed by a few ancient Greek writers and skewed further by some 19th century Western historians that the Persians threatened civilization, they were in fact one of its main proponents and contributors."
He went on to tell me that there is ample evidence, from Greek sources, that
"The Persians never wanted the Greek states to be part of their territory, but merely wanted no aggression to arise from them, and in the most part lived happily alongside most of their Greek neighbour states. They viewed the Greek states as lying outside their domain."
He disputes the view that the Persians were after Greek gold and wealth.
"They [Persians] already had plenty of it, and if they had wanted more they would have expanded to the East, where the gold would have been more plentiful."
The Achaemenids did not want to expand the empire beyond a certain point, "they understood that over expansion would lead to disintegration."
Shahrokh Razmjou indeed believes that it's not really the Ancient Greeks who should get the blame when recounting our history, but rather it is the misinterpretation and skewed story telling of later historians, which has given the Persians at best a bland and at worst a barbaric image in the West.
He certainly has a point. Going by my own experience, as a 14 year old in one of the supposedly best schools in London, we were taught 'ancient history' by none other than our school's headmaster, who to this day I greatly respect and admire. However, the only reference to the Persians in our textbooks were their constant defeats at the hands of the heroic Greeks and the final extermination of the Achaemenids by Alexander the 'Great', who had an army of 'Poets and Artists' unlike the Persian army whose sole purpose was 'to fight'. Now I know why we lost, those Persian soldiers should have been recounting poetry at Alexander.
The sacking and burning of Persepolis, by the way, was of course not intentional, but came about during "a momentary lapse of drunkenness", we were taught. Alexander's Greatness so untouchable in Western minds that story telling has skewed history to safeguard legendary heroes. Sir Henry Rawlinson, would have surely disapproved of such tuition.
As you can imagine, as an Iranian listening to such a version of my own history wasn't exactly confidence boosting. In our modern schooling of ancient history, everything positive seems be associated with the West and all negatives come from the East.
* Poems, Prose & Art: the Greeks - the Persians didn't have time for stories and art, they only spent their days fighting
* Mathematics and Astronomy: the Greeks - the Persians must have guessed the angles at Persepolis and guessed the new year rather luckily, every year
* Courage and Humanity: the Greeks - Persians seem to always be numbered in the millions committing massacres on their chariots, and avenged eventually by thousands of courageous Greeks
* Organization and Strategy: the Greeks - the Persian administrative systems, coinage and records of transactions must have all been unplanned and random
* Inventions & Innovations: The Persian road system, surely we can mention those as a positive. Apparently no, the first mention of roads in my class came along when we got onto the Romans. Roman Roads, the phrase is indisputable! Persians merely anticipated what the Romans would do later in history, and copied them first, so we can't give the Persians credit for it.
Indeed, years later when I read Xenophon and Herodotus, they almost seemed Persian Partisans compared to the modern schooling I had received.
My tone is getting too emotive! Don't get me wrong, I don't want to belittle Greek achievement, which I admire greatly or exaggerate Achaemenid innovation, much of whose feats can be traced back to Assyrian and other preceding dynasties.
But there is a need to start setting the record straight, for the benefit of both the East and West. How many young British students of ancient history know of the Canal which Darius restored and completed joining the Nile to the Red Sea, or that the inscription on the New York post office "Neither rain, nor snow, nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" is Herodotus describing the Persian postal system, or of the great amount of day to day trade and business the Greek States and Persians conducted while living, the vast majority of the time, peacefully alongside each other. These bits of knowledge can bring future generations closer together and make them less suspicious of the motives of other cultures, rather than my generation which had to swallow the usual bitter East versus West fodder.