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Elements of forgotten empire
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 11 - 2006

While the Sassanids are perhaps best known for their defeat at the hands of Arab forces in 642 CE, a new exhibition reveals more about their empire than its sudden final collapse, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Occupying the ground-floor rooms of the Musée Cernuschi in Paris until 30 December, Les Perses Sassanides, Fastes d'un empire oublié (The Sassanid Persians: Splendours of a Forgotten Empire) is an exhibition that brings together items from major European and North American museums and from the National Museum of Iran in Tehran, in order to show the range and variety of objects that have survived from this period in Iranian history, stretching from the early 3rd century CE to the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire in 642.
At its greatest extent just before its defeat by Arab forces first at the battle of Al-Qadisiyya in what is now Iraq in 636 and then at Nevhavand in 642, the Sassanid Empire controlled a vast territory stretching from Anatolia and Egypt in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east, stretching northwards into central Asia and southwards into the Arabian Peninsula. Though Egypt was a rather late acquisition, the empire itself not long surviving the country's capture from the Byzantines in 619 CE, important Sassanid items have been found in Egypt, as this exhibition reveals.
After centuries of intermittent warfare with first their Roman and then their Byzantine neighbours, the Sassanids won a string of decisive victories in the early 7th century CE, adding most of the Levant (and Egypt) to an empire centred on what is now Iran and Iraq. Yet, within a decade, the dynasty and the empire had collapsed before invading Arab forces, a collapse striking even in a region inured to sudden disasters, like the similar collapse of the Achaemenid Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great some 900 years before.
Once the dust had cleared, it became plain that the Arabs had added, whether they intended to or not, the Sassanids' vast domains to their then nascent empire, laying the foundations for the Islamic civilisation that would later grow up across Asia. The Persian contribution to that civilisation was sometimes hotly debated at the time, and there is little doubt that first the Ummayyads, and then particularly the Abbasids, adopted features of Sassanid administration, among other things, in governing their newly acquired territories.
The great value of the present exhibition is that it allows the visitor to appreciate the nature of Sassanid civilisation from the artefacts that it has left behind, many of them striking in their use of materials and designs. From the evidence provided here, the Sassanid state was a highly centralised affair, focused on the figure of the king-emperor, the shahanshah eran, and it had a love affair with bureaucracy. While rather little is said about Zoroastrianism, which was elevated to the status of state religion under the Sassanids and for which the empire is perhaps best known today, this exhibition is a welcome reminder of a sometimes overlooked period in ancient Near Eastern history.
The exhibition begins by looking at the rock carvings which, scattered across present-day Iran, are among the most striking survivals of the Sassanid Empire. Visitors today to the Achaemenid site of Persepolis near Shiraz in south- west Iran are usually taken across the surrounding plain to the nearby site of Naqsh e- Rostam, where the tombs of the Achaemenid kings Darius I, Xerxes, Ataxerxes and Darius II are set into the cliff face, names familiar to generations of schoolboys studying the Persian Wars, if from the point of view of the Ancient Greeks rather than from that of the Persians. Below these tombs, Sassanid reliefs made some 700 years later show the investiture of the founder of the Sassanid state, Ardeshir I, in c. 224 CE, together with later military victories achieved by Shapur I (241 -- 271) over the Roman emperors Gordian, Philip the Arab and Valerian.
According to the informative catalogue essay by Ernie Haerinck, these reliefs, between four and seven metres high and eight to ten metres long, were meant above all as a way of registering Sassanid accomplishments for eternity. By commissioning such designs "at a spectacular natural site and at a historical and cultural site of recognised importance", the Sassanid kings hoped to stage themselves as the inheritors of the glories of their Achaemenid forbears, as well as to emphasise the dynastic state's military prowess and power.
One of the most interesting items in this exhibition features among these rock carvings, plaster casts and photographs of which are included in the show's first room. In 2001, a Sassanid rock carving was discovered near the village of Rag-i Bibi in Afghanistan, some 1,600 km east of those in Iran. The existence of this relief, showing a royal scene almost certainly depicting Shapur I and similar to those known from Iran, was reported by local villagers who apparently feared Taliban attempts to destroy it. The relief has since been studied by French archaeologists, who have shown how this design, like those further westwards, was meant to mark the presence of Sassanid power, this time on the route to India.
Sassanid metalwork continues this theme of celebrating dynastic power. Hunting scenes predominate on the silver plates and bowls displayed in this exhibition, the designs being rendered in gold and showing Sassanid kings spearing various kinds of animal, sometimes from horseback. Much of this material has been lent by the Louvre and by other European museums, though there are also items from Iran. Apparently the planned contributions to the exhibition from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg did not in fact arrive, perhaps a sign of the ongoing crisis affecting heritage and other institutions in the Russian Federation. They are, however, signaled in the catalogue.
Sassanid glassware, the contents of another room in the exhibition, shows a high degree of technical expertise, and the "Cup of Solomon", made of glass and gold and one of the best- known objects to have survived from this period, has been lent by the Bibliothèque nationale de France for this exhibition. Sometimes claimed as a gift from the Abbasid caliph Haroun Al-Rashid to Charlemagne in 801, it is in fact not clear how it came to be in France, where its provenance goes back at least to the Middle Ages.
Textile fragments also survive from the Sassanid period, though they have done so only under the unusual conditions of Egyptian desert tombs. Egypt belonged to the Sassanids for only a decade or so, won from the empire's Byzantine rivals. However, it was perhaps during this period that Sassanid textiles began to circulate in Egypt, which would explain why fragments of them were discovered in the necropolis near the ancient city of Antinopolis (Sheikh Ibada) in Upper Egypt by French archaeologists at the end of the 19th century. Some of these fragments are on display here, lent by the Louvre. Made of patterned silk, they indicate not only the luxury of Persian dress during the period, but also a form of artistic exchange between the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. Apparently Byzantine officials would wear Persian-style clothing as a mark of distinction.
While the metalwork, rock reliefs, and, at the end of the exhibition, swords and military items, on display all indicate a society focused on the figure of the ruler and on military prowess, other materials seem to indicate that administration too was highly developed under the Sassanids and that the Sassanid state, unlike that of the Achaemenids, was highly centralised. The emphasis placed on Zoroastrianism, codified at this period, as the state religion is one indication of this, the religious and cultural pluralism that had been a feature of the earlier Achaemenid empire being replaced under the Sassanids by a kind of theocratic state in which members of the Sassanid dynasty seem to have played a role in the state religion.
Another indication of centralisation is given in the Sassanid coinage on display, while Sassanid bureaucracy is well represented by a large collection of document seals. Sassanid coins naturally featured the reigning emperor, together with designs drawn from the state religion of Zoroastrianism. The exhibition includes coins struck from the reign of Ardashir onwards, the final ones, bearing the image of Khosrow II, one of the last Sassanid emperors (591-628), including the Arabic bismillah and indicating that these were struck after the Arab conquest.
According to the catalogue essay by Rika Gyselen, seals "reflect Sassanid culture as a whole better than any other form of artistic expression," and it certainly seems from the large collection presented here that Sassanid society not only produced a great many documents needing authentification, but also that this was as much a decorative affair as it was a utilitarian. There are seals here featuring animals, kings and queens, scorpions, and flowers and birds. Most of these objects are taken from French or European public collections.
The Musée Cernuschi, surely one of Paris's most civilised museums, was founded by the millionaire Franco-Italian banker Henri Cernuschi at the end of the 19th century to house his personal collection of Asian art, collected on his travels in China and in south- east Asia. This collection, dominated by an enormous 18th-century statue of the seated Buddha from Japan, can be seen upstairs in the museum, from whose windows views of the adjoining Parc Monceau can be had. This park, always neat, was looking impeccable on a recent visit, scarcely a blade of grass out of place.
While Cernuschi himself seems not to have had any particular interest in ancient Near Eastern art and culture, in Les Perses Sassanides, Fastes d'un empire oublié the museum he founded has put on a splendid show, large enough to do justice to the scope of the civilisation presented and small enough to allow each object to be looked at in detail.
Les Perses Sassanides, Fastes d'un empire oublié , Musée Cernuschi, 7 avenue Vélasquez, Paris, until 30 December.


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